The European Union (EU) has set new rules penalising acts of environmental destruction “comparable to ecocide.” The agreement, which was made on Thursday 16 November, makes the EU the first international body to criminalise these acts, marking a victory for environmental policymakers as the worst-polluting organisations will now face jail sentences of up to ten years and fines of up to 5 per cent of their global turnover.  

Strengthening environmental protection through criminal law 

The establishment of these rules follows proposals first made in December 2021 detailing a European Green Deal for strengthening the protection of the environment through criminal law.  
“For too long criminals have profited from weak sanctions and lack of enforcement,” said Virginijus Sinkevicius, commissioner for environment, oceans and fisheries. “With this strengthened law the EU steps up its action. It will better ensure that the most severe breaches of environmental rules are considered as crimes, that enforcers are more effective on the ground, and that environmental defenders are more protected and acknowledged.” 
The law will be formally approved by European Parliament in February 2024, EU member states will then have two years to put this into national law. Lawmakers have not agreed to extend these obligations to offences committed outside EU borders on the behalf of EU organisations, though individual member states will be able to choose to implement this.  
Once instated, environmental offences “leading to death” could be punishable by ten years in prison, with “qualified” offences resulting in an eight-year sentence, and others capped at five years. Examples of offenses include illegal logging, ecosystem destruction, habitat loss and polluting activities.  
In addition to this, the fines levied on businesses for environmentally damaging practices will be far more severe, hitting as high as 5 per cent of an organisation’s total global turnover.  
A key part of the new rule is harmonisation of what constitutes an environmental crime, creating more clear-cut guidelines and generating real world examples of corporate “climate criminals.” The law also defines which types of environmental activities are covered, including water abstraction, ship recycling and pollution, the introduction and spread of alien species, and ozone destruction. However, fishing, carbon market fraud, and exporting toxic waste are all notably absent from the EU law.  
“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,” said Marie Toussant a French Lawyer and MEP. “[This decision] marks the end of impunity for environmental criminals,” she adds.  

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