EU agrees new penalties for environmental crimes

On Nov. 16, 2023, the Council presidency and European Parliament negotiators reached provisional agreement on a proposed EU law that would improve the investigation and prosecution of environmental crimes. The agreement still needs to be confirmed by both institutions before going through the formal adoption procedure.

The EU, replacing the previous 2008 Directive, has taken action to combat criminal networks involved in all forms of environmental crime, establishing rules on the definition of criminal offences and new penalties in order to protect the environment.

In fact, the agreement defines environmental crime more precisely and adds new types of environmental criminal offences. It also harmonises the level of penalties for natural persons and, for the first time, for legal persons across all EU member states.

The new offences include timber trafficking, which is a major cause of deforestation in some parts of the world, the illegal recycling of polluting components of ships and serious breaches of legislation on chemicals.

Offences which are committed intentionally are considered a “qualified offence” if they cause destruction; irreversible, widespread and substantial damage; or long-lasting, widespread and substantial damage to an ecosystem of considerable size or environmental value, or to a natural habitat within a protected site, or to the quality of air, soil or water.   

For legal persons, the law sets out the following penalties:

  • for the most serious offences, a maximum fine of at least 5% of the legal person’s total worldwide turnover, or alternatively €40 million;
  • for all other offences, a maximum fine of at least 3% of the legal person’s total worldwide turnover, or alternatively €24 million.

Additional measures may be imposed, such as obliging the offender to reinstate the environment or compensate for the damage, excluding them from access to public funding or withdrawing their permits or authorisations.

Finally, EU countries will have to ensure the training of those who work to detect, investigate and prosecute environmental crimes, such as judges, prosecutors and law enforcement authorities. They will also have to ensure that these authorities are adequately resourced, such as in terms of qualified staff and financial resources. The directive also contains provisions on support and assistance for people who report environmental crimes, environmental defenders, and people affected by these crimes.