Today’s Solutions: April 12, 2024

In a historic act, the European Union has criminalized serious incidents of environmental degradation, setting a global precedent. This innovative law, dubbed “comparable to ecocide,” seeks to address ecosystem degradation, illicit logging, and habitat loss through enhanced penalties and prison sentences.

Ambitious legislation

Marie Toussaint, a French lawyer and MEP, praises the EU’s decision as “one of the most ambitious legislations in the world.” The amended environmental crime directive is regarded as a watershed moment, demonstrating a commitment to eradicating environmental impunity across Europe. Toussaint underscores the urgency, saying, “Environmental crimes are growing two to three times faster than the global economy.”

Criminalizing ‘ecocide’

While without utilizing the term ‘ecocide,’ the directive’s preamble refers to offenses as “comparable to ecocide.” Ecocide, defined as “unlawful or wanton acts causing substantial and severe damage to the environment,” is implicitly recognized in the legislation. Proponents claim that this is a significant step toward criminalizing ecocide on a global basis.

Penalties for individuals and corporations

The directive lists a variety of environmental activities, such as water abstraction, ship recycling, pollution, and the introduction of invasive alien species. Individuals, including CEOs and board members, face harsh penalties, including prison sentences of up to eight years, which can increase to 10 years if their acts result in a person’s death. Antonius Manders, a Dutch MEP, notes the significance, stating, “CEOs can risk a fine, but they do not want to be personally involved. They never want to go to jail.”

A bold shift in liability

Michael Faure, a professor of comparative and international environmental law, emphasizes the directive’s groundbreaking nature. He points out that complying with permits will no longer absolve operators of criminal culpability. Faure says, “And that is no less than a revolution,” underlining that operators must be aware that complying with permits does not insulate them from legal penalties.

Implementation challenges and future considerations

Member states have two years to implement the amended directive into national law. This era allows for greater freedom in determining penalties, such as fines based on a percentage of turnover or set fines up to €40 million (roughly $43.2 million). While the legislation is praised as revolutionary, some, such as Marie Toussaint, indicate a wish to go much further. Advocates also emphasize the need for a public prosecutor at the EU level, pointing to a possible future development.

A global impact 

The directive raises the question of whether offenses committed beyond EU borders on behalf of EU corporations would be covered by it. The EU directive will almost certainly have an impact on ongoing Council of Europe negotiations to revise the Convention on the Protection of the Environment via Criminal Law. Toussaint emphasizes the broader implications, stating, “The current revision of the European directive could have a major influence on the negotiations underway and an impact outside EU territory.”

A tipping point in environmental justice

As the EU takes a strong stand against catastrophic ecological devastation, the globe witnesses a paradigm change in environmental justice. The prosecution of environmentally destructive behaviors sends a clear message: accountability has no limits. While the directive lays the groundwork for a more responsible approach, future discussions, and worldwide cooperation will decide the long-term impact on environmental preservation.

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