Environmental crime covers the gamut of activities that breach environmental legislation and cause significant harm or risk to the environment, human health, or both.
These offences can include, but are not limited to the
- improper collection, transport, recovery or disposal of waste;
- illegal operation of a plant in which a dangerous activity is carried out or in which dangerous substances or preparations are stored;
- killing, destruction, possession or trade of protected wild animal or plant species;
- production, importation, exportation, marketing or use of ozone-depleting substances.
Waste trafficking demonstrates the extent of the problem. The use of legal business structures by criminal actors are an inherent feature of this crime area. In many cases, criminal actors and legal businesses are indistinguishable. As part of this development, criminals involved in waste trafficking have moved towards the more complex business model of illicit waste management rather than simply illegally dumping waste.
Waste traffickers now operate along the entire waste-processing chain and rely heavily on the use of fraudulent documents.
Environmental crime is characterised by its impact on the natural environment. This impact manifests itself in
- increasing levels of pollution
- a degradation of wildlife
- a reduction in biodiversity
- the disturbance of ecological balance.
Environmental crimes are not victimless. The damage they cause to ecosystems and the environment poses
- the risk of disease
- environmental disaster
- irreversible climate change
- the contamination of the food chain
- reduced life expectancy
- 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 of animals and plants 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 Mafia-style gangs 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 (estimated annual value: USD 7 billion);
- fish (estimated annual value: USD 4.2 to 9.5 billion).
Overall, the annual value of transnational environmental crime is estimated to be worth USD 70 to 213 billion annually.
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.