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Environmental liability

Preventing and remedying damage to protected species, natural habitats, water and soil.


Protecting Europe’s natural resources and the ecosystem services they provide is important for a healthy economy and society in the face of unprecedented pressure on the environment, including major losses of biodiversity.

The Environmental Liability Directive (ELD) entered into force in 2007. It established a comprehensive EU-wide liability regime for environmental damage based on the ‘polluter-pays’ principle. By making those that have caused environmental damage liable for remediation, the ELD provides a strong incentive to avoid damage occurring in the first place. It also makes those whose activities threaten the environment liable for taking preventive action. The ELD supports other EU environmental laws that are designed to protect the environment.


The overall aim of the ELD is to prevent and fully remedy damaged natural resources and their services to the condition that would have existed if no damage had occurred.


Main law: Directive 2004/35/EC on environmental liability with regard to the prevention and remedying of environmental damage

Defining environmental damage

The ELD defines environmental damage as damage to protected species and natural habitats, to water and to soil. In March 2021, the Commission adopted guidelines that clarify the scope of the term ‘environmental damage’ in the ELD. The guidelines are based on the established caselaw.

Determining liability for environmental damage

As the ELD deals with ‘pure ecological damage’, it is based on the powers and duties of public authorities. The authorities determine and assess the extent of environmental damage and agree with those responsible for the damage (or threat thereof) the preventive or remediation measures to be taken. The ELD does not cover criminal liability (see Environmental Crime Directive) or liability for traditional civil law damage which falls under national law (property damage, personal injury).

Operators carrying out dangerous activities listed in Annex III of the Directive fall under strict liability (no need to prove fault). Operators carrying out other occupational activities than those listed in Annex III are liable for fault-based damage to protected species or natural habitats. Establishing a causal link between the activity and the damage is always required.

Affected individuals and non-governmental organisations are entitled to notify designated public bodies of any environmental damage or imminent threat. They can challenge the action or inaction of a public body to prevent and remedy environmental damage.

Taking preventive and remedial measures

The ELD imposes the following obligations on operators responsible for the damage (or immediate threat thereof) 

  • prevention in case of an imminent threat of damage
  • immediate limitation measures
  • remediation measures, including primary, complementary and compensatory remediation

Primary remediation refers to any remedial measure that takes place at the affected site and returns the damaged natural resources and/or impaired services to the original condition. If primary remediation does not fully return the damaged site to its original condition, complementary remediation measures should be taken at another site possibly geographically linked to the damaged one. If full remediation is delayed, compensatory remediation measures should be taken for the interim loss of natural resources and services.


The ELD is implemented by the public bodies appointed by EU countries. Its implementation is supported by a group of ELD government experts who meet regularly with the European Commission to provide advice and coordinate ELD activities in individual countries.

Find out more about the 2023 evaluation of the ELD Directive and previous evaluations.


Consult older studies


For questions about EU environmental policy, contact Europe Direct.