Peters & Peters

EU Parliament votes to criminalise environment crimes comparable to “ecocide”

At the end of February, the European Parliament voted through a new environmental crime directive which includes provisions criminalising the most serious cases of environmental damage that are “comparable to ecocide”. The new Environmental Crime Directive was adopted on 11 April 2024 and entered into force on 20 May 2024.

The environmental campaign group Stop Ecocide International has been calling for ecocide to become an international crime since 2021, defining it as “unlawful or wanton acts committed with knowledge that there is a substantial likelihood of severe and either widespread or long-term damage to the environment being caused by those acts”.

First international organisation

Although some individual countries have already criminalised ecocide, the EU will now become the first international organisation to do so. The February vote in the EU Parliament was passed by a significant majority: 499 votes in favour, 100 against and 23 abstentions.

In particular, the environmental crime directive:

– Contains an updated list of environmental criminal offences, including illegal timber trade, depletion of water resources, serious breaches of EU chemicals legislation and pollution caused by ships. Liability under the directive may extend to both legal persons (such as companies) and individuals including, if the relevant conditions for criminal liability are met, board members of companies. The directive also sets out limitation periods for different types of criminal offences.

– Introduces a so-called “qualified criminal offence”. This will apply to criminal offences which have particularly catastrophic results, such as widespread pollution, industrial accidents with severe effects on the environment or large-scale fires. Criminal offences will be “qualified criminal offences” if the conduct in question causes:


(1) the destruction of, or widespread and substantial damage which is either irreversible or long lasting to, an ecosystem of considerable size or environmental value or a habitat within a protected site; or

(2) widespread and substantial damage which is either irreversible or long lasting to the quality of air, soil or water.


– Sets out a range of penalties that may apply to offenders. Depending on the circumstances and whether the offender is an individual or corporate, penalties may include fines, a requirement that offenders reinstate the damaged environment and compensate for it, and (in respect of individuals) terms of up to five years imprisonment. In the case of “qualified criminal offences”, punishments will be more severe and (in respect of individuals) could include up to eight years’ imprisonment or up to 10 years in the case of offences causing the death of a person.

– Introduces a requirement for Member States to hold specialised regular training for police, judges, prosecutors and judicial staff and organise awareness-raising campaigns to fight environmental crime.

The directive will now be considered and voted on by the European Council this month. Member States will then have two years in which to align their national laws with the directive.

Maria Cronin comments:

“This is a landmark development. By passing the environmental crime directive, EU Member States have shown that they are committed in principle to pursuing and penalising those responsible for the most serious cases of environmental harm. However, we will have to wait to see how national laws are enforced in practice, once they have been aligned with the directive, and whether they have sufficient teeth to tackle the growing crisis of environmental crime. Focus will also be on other international organisations, including the International Criminal Court, to see whether they now follow suit.”