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European Union Floats Tougher Penalties for Environmental Crimes

Dec. 15, 2021, 3:27 PM

Courts in European Union countries should be given the power to fine companies that commit serious environmental crimes up to at least 5% of their global revenues, the European Commission said Wednesday.

The bloc’s countries also should ensure that their national criminal law codes stipulate maximum prison sentences of at least six years for individuals who commit environmental crimes, rising to a maximum of at least ten years when death or serious injury is caused, the commission said.

Tougher sanctions were needed because “too often in Europe, there is no real penalty for environmental crime,” said EU environment commissioner Virginijus Sinkevicius. Maximum penalties that can be imposed by judges should be “more effective, more dissuasive and more proportionate,” he said.

The commission proposed the minimum levels for maximum fines and jail time as part of a draft law that would also widen the range of environmental crimes to be covered by the sentences. The draft law would replace a 2008 EU law that covered fewer categories of crime and did not stipulate penalties.

The European Parliament and Council of the EU, in which member country governments meet, would have to approve the environmental crime update.

New Offenses

Maximum fines of at least 5% should be imposed on companies that commit offenses including waste dumping, industrial pollution that causes death or injury, and selling banned chemicals or products that cause widespread environmental harm, according to the proposed law.

For companies that destroy or traffic in wildlife, supply illegally harvested timber, or damage protected habitats, the maximum fine should be at least 3% of global revenues, the commission said. EU countries should be free to apply criminal penalties to company personnel on top of any fines levied on a company, the draft law added.

New offenses not covered by the 2008 law included illegal timber trading, illegal ship recycling, and illegal water abstraction. The new law would also set minimum standards for EU countries on matters including aggravating and mitigating circumstances, and protection for environmental whistleblowers.

The law’s expanded scope was welcome but the “bold objectives cannot be met without a significant allocation of resources,” said Beastly Business, a wildlife trafficking research project at the U.K.'s Sheffield University, in an email.

Unless more money is made available to national enforcement authorities, “it is highly probable that environmental crimes will not be prioritized,” Beastly Business said.

Different Impacts

The new law would affect EU countries differently because some already impose maximum environmental crime penalties beyond those proposed by the commission.

For example, for illegal waste dumping, Belgium, the Czech Republic, France, and Poland would have to raise their stipulated maximum prison sentences under the new law, but maximum sentences in Germany, Greece, Croatia and the Netherlands already exceed those in the proposed directive, according to a study published by the commission in October 2020.

Maximum fines for environmental offenses by companies currently vary from the low tens of thousands of euros in Bulgaria, Romania and Sweden, up to 10 million euros or more in Belgium, Germany, and Ireland, the study said.

Frederik Hafen, environmental democracy policy officer at advocacy group the European Environmental Bureau, said he was confident EU countries would “recognize the need for harmonization at European level, including the harmonization of sanctions, in order to account for the cross-border nature of environmental crimes.”

“Sanctions have to be strong enough and fines high enough so that they can no longer be simply factored in by criminals as the cost of doing business,” he said.

To contact the reporter on this story: Stephen Gardner in Brussels at

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Chuck McCutcheon at