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The Guardian - UK
The Guardian - UK
Isabella Kaminski

EU criminalises environmental damage ‘comparable to ecocide’

An image of bare mountainside with logged trees and standing trees in distance
A image that the environment NGO Agent Green says is evidence of large-scale deforestation and habitat degradation in the Cindrel mountains of Romania. Photograph: Agent Green/AP

The European Union has become the first international body to criminalise wide-scale environmental damage “comparable to ecocide”.

Late on Thursday, lawmakers agreed an update to the bloc’s environmental crime directive punishing the most serious cases of ecosystem destruction, including habitat loss and illegal logging, with tougher penalties.

Marie Toussaint, a French lawyer and MEP heading EU efforts to criminalise ecocide, said the decision “marks the end of impunity for environmental criminals” and could usher in a new age of environmental litigation in Europe.

The environmental crime directive will be formally passed in the spring, and member states will then have two years to put it into national law.

Although the agreed text does not itself include the word “ecocide”, its preamble says it intends to criminalise “cases comparable to ecocide”. These are actions that cause widespread, substantial and irreversible or long-lasting damage to large or important ecosystems, habitats or the quality of air, soil or water.

This closely follows a definition of ecocide developed by an international panel of legal experts in 2021. The definition was mainly intended to be adopted by the international criminal court through an amendment to the Rome statute – the key goal of the Stop Ecocide Foundation – but is now increasingly being used for national-level legislation. Scotland, for example, recently began consulting on whether to introduce the UK’s first ecocide law.

The revised EU law specifies which kinds of environmental activities are covered. These include water abstraction, ship recycling and pollution, the introduction and spread of invasive alien species, and ozone destruction. But it does not say anything about fishing, the export of toxic waste to developing countries or carbon market fraud.

Having a permit to carry out listed activities will not automatically be an excuse. Individuals and companies will have committed a crime if that authorisation was obtained fraudulently or by corruption, extortion or coercion, or if it breaches substantive legal requirements.

Lawmakers did not agree to extend these obligations to offences committed outside EU borders on behalf of EU companies, but individual member states would be able to choose to do this.

The law introduces new penalties, ranging from prison sentences for individuals to exclusion from access to public funds for companies. Member states will also be able to choose whether to introduce fines for companies based on a proportion of their turnover (up to 5% depending on the crime) or fixed amounts of up to €40m (£35m).

Virginijus Sinkevičius, EU commissioner for environment, oceans and fisheries, said environmental crimes were serious, lucrative and on the rise. Annual revenues from the illegal waste market in the EU, for example, ranged between €4 and €15bn.

“The EU agreed a new law that recognises their gravity, especially when large ecosystems are destroyed,” said Sinkevičius. “Our health depends on the state of the environment in which we live, so we must deter criminals willing to destroy ecosystems for profit.”

Toussaint said the EU had now adopted some of the most ambitious legislation in the world. “In the European political context, this text is a point of support for all those who defend the environment in court and fight the impunity of criminal firms who too often flout the laws and work today to unravelling environmental democracy in Europe.”

The agreement followed months of negotiation between the Council of the EU, European Commission and parliament, as well as civil society campaigning.

Jojo Mehta, co-founder and executive director of Stop Ecocide International, said the updated law would help member states take environmental harms much more seriously. “This is highly significant and to be wholeheartedly commended, and we can see from the rapidly growing momentum of the ecocide law initiative that European states will not be long in engaging more deeply with it in their own jurisdictions.

“Indeed, I have no doubt that with this direction of travel being rapidly established, it is only a matter of time before ecocide is recognised in criminal law at every level.”

• This article was amended on 20 November 2023 to correct a reference to the European Council, which should have been to the Council of the EU.

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