Environmental crime is a growing concern and causes significant damage to the environment, citizens' health and the economy within the EU and worldwide. According to Interpol and the United Nations Environment Programme, environmental crime is the fourth largest criminal activity in the world after drug trafficking, human trafficking and counterfeiting.
Illegal trafficking in waste and in wildlife species, pollution crimes, and illegal trading in hazardous substances are among the most serious environmental crimes. They can have devastating effects on the environment and human health but often remain invisible. These offences often affect society as a whole rather than individuals, and rarely involve victims informing the police or the courts of the crime committed.
This crime is highly lucrative but hard to detect, prosecute and punish. These factors make it highly attractive for organised crime groups. Very often, environmental crimes have a cross-border aspect.
Environmental Crime Directive
The Environmental Crime Directive (Directive 2008/99/EC) is the EU’s main law to address environmental crime. The Directive was adopted on 24 October 2008. Member States had to transpose the Directive into national law by December 2010.
Under the Directive, Member States must criminalise serious violations of environmental law. It defines a number of serious offences and requires EU Member States to provide effective, proportionate and dissuasive criminal penalties for these when committed intentionally or as a result of serious negligence.
- sets a minimum standard of environmental protection through criminal law to be adopted by Member States. Member States are free to maintain or introduce more stringent protective measures.
- requires Member States to attach criminal sanctions to the breach of prohibitions deriving from relevant sectorial legislation listed in two Annexes to the Directive.
- requires Member States to ensure criminal liability also with regard to inciting, aiding and abetting such offenses.
- requires liability of both natural and legal persons. The liability of legal persons can be of criminal or non-criminal nature.
- seeks to approximate criminal sanctions levels by requiring effective, proportionate and dissuasive criminal penalties for environmental crimes.
Evaluation of the Directive
The Commission evaluated the Environmental Crime Directive in 2019 and 2020. It concluded that the Directive has led to a degree of harmonisation of environmental criminal law in Member States. However, many differences remain in how Member States tackle environmental crime in practice and improvements of the legal framework at EU level are urgently needed.
Proposal for a new Environmental Crime Directive
On 15 December 2021, the European Commission adopted a proposal for a new Directive on the protection of the environment through criminal law, to replace the 2008 Directive. It was accompanied by a Communication explaining the wider context and the rationale of proposed measures.
- better defines criminal offences
- adds new severe offences to the list of crimes, for example illegal timber trade and ship recycling
- sets deterrent level of sanctions
- and strengthens the enforcement chain by provisions on training, investigative tools, cooperation among authorities, data collection and national strategies
The proposal also has a provision to protect and assist persons who report environmental crimes or assist enforcement (environmental defenders).
Negotiations on the proposal
Council negotiations started in January 2022. During the French Presidency, an agreement as a Partial General Approach on Articles 2 to 4 of the Directive regarding the definitions of environmental offences was reached and endorsed in June 2022.
Legislative work is ongoing also at the European Parliament, under the Committee on Legal Affairs (JURI).
Environmental Compliance and Governance Forum
The high-level Commission Expert Group on Environmental Compliance and Governance Forum also works to support effectively combating environmental crime. In 2021, a Forum sub-group on sanctioning of environmental offences was established. Its work will focus on developing common views and on collecting good practices on environmental enforcement and sanctioning.
EMPACT (European Multidisciplinary Platform against Criminal Threats) was established in 2017. It is the EU's flagship initiative in its fight against organised and serious international crime.
This cooperation platform is driven by EU Member States and is supported by all EU institutions, bodies and agencies. Third countries and international organisations are also associated.
- 2022 Eurojust factsheet - Supporting judicial authorities in the fight against environmental crime
- 2022 Europol report - Environmental crime in the age of climate change
- 2021 Eurojust report - Eurojust’s Casework on environmental Crime
- 2021 Commission report - Mapping the risk of serious and organised crime infiltrating legitimate businesses
- 2019 UNEP report - Environmental Rule of Law: First Global Report
2018 UNEP report - The State of Knowledge of Crimes that have Serious Impacts on the Environment
- 2017 ENPE report - Tackling environmental crime in Europe – A LIFE-ENPE capitalisation and gap-filling
- 2016 UNEP-INTERPOL report - The Rise of Environmental Crime – a growing threat to natural resources, peace, development and security
- 2012 study - Stocktaking of the main problems and review of national enforcement mechanisms for tackling illegal killing, trapping and trade of birds in the EU'
- 2011 Study - Provisions on penalties related to legislation on industrial installations
- 2010 Study - Penalties applicable for infringement of the provisions of the REACH Regulation
Related strategies:Zero Pollution Action Plan, EU Biodiversity Strategy for 2030, EU farm to fork strategy, Chemical Strategy, EU STRATEGY 2021-2025 on tackling organised crime, EU Action Plan against Wildlife Trafficking
Related Commission priorities:European Green Deal
EU Forum of Judges for the Environment (EUFJE)
European Network of Prosecutors for the Environment (ENPE)
European Union Network for the Implementation and Enforcement of Environmental Law (IMPEL)
For questions about EU environmental policy, please contact Europe Direct.