Environmental crime covers the gamut of activities that breach environmental legislation and cause significant harm or risk to the environment, human health, or both.
According to the European Commission, the main areas of environmental crime are the illegal:
- emission or discharge of substances into air, water or soil;
- trade in wildlife;
- trade in ozone-depleting substances;
- shipment or dumping of waste.
Environmental crimes are not victimless. The damage caused often builds up over time and is not immediately visible. Endangered flora and fauna are an example. The illegal trade in them and in commodities derived from them needs to be stopped to avoid further disruption to the ecosystems they are taken from.
Damage to ecosystems and the environment poses the risk of disease, environmental disaster, irreversible climate change, the contamination of the food chain, reduced life expectancy and, ultimately, the death of human beings.
Environmental crime is highly lucrative – it can be as profitable as illegal drug trafficking – but the sanctions are much lower, and it is harder to detect. These factors make it highly attractive for organised crime groups.
Involvement in the illegal trafficking of waste and in endangered species is now routine for many organised crime groups. And there are indications that proceeds from these activities are also used to finance terrorism. In the case of organised environmental crime, it is not uncommon for traditional gangs such as Camorra or Chinese groups to use the same modi operandi and the same routes they use for their other activities.
According to a 2011 study, 3 out of the 12 most financially rewarding transnational criminal activities are linked to environmental crime. These include the illicit:
- trafficking in wildlife (estimated annual value: USD 7.8 to 10 billion);
- timber trade (estimated annual value: USD 7 billion);
- fish trade (estimated annual value: USD 4.2 to 9.5 billion).
Overall, the estimated annual value of transnational environmental crime is from USD 70 to 213 billion per year.
According to Europol’s 2013 Serious and Organised Crime Threat Assessment (SOCTA), environmental crimes are regarded not as “key threats” but as “emerging threats”. It noted:
- the involvement of organised crime groups was rising in line with the increase in volume of waste and the cost of disposing it;
- an increase in the smuggling of illicit waste to West Africa and China;
- a rise in the number of reports from Member States of the illicit dumping of waste.
The cross-border aspect of crimes in this area underlines the need for a pan-European response by law enforcement. With dedicated staff working on environmental crime, Europol provides the permanent secretariat for the Environmental Crime Network (EnviCrimeNet), an informal network connecting police officers and other crime fighters in the field.
In 2015, the EnviCrimeNet and Europol finalised a year-long intelligence project on environmental crime. The project, which used data from 50 jurisdictions, found that, next to the usual problems of comparing EU crime statistics, the main issue with environmental crime is that much of it goes undetected due to the reticence or inefficiency of law enforcement agencies in dealing with this problem.