Environmental Crime, Climate Litigation and Ecocide

The EU Commission, the EU Parliament and the EU Council agree to prevent environmental harm through criminal law.

North Atlantic Coast, Environmental Crime Climate Litigation And Ecocide

image © Athanasios Anagnostopoulos

EU Agreement on Environmental Crime

On November 16th 2023, the European Commission and the European Parliament agreed to prevent organised environmental crime through criminal law. As a result, acts causing serious environmental harm are to be formally considered crimes. This agreement is yet another important step in an international collaborative effort to legislate against environmental damage.

Practically speaking, the new directive means that all EU Member States will have to enhance domestic criminal law legislation to define ever more precisely the environmental offence categories, and their sanctions against offenders. In so doing, member states are pushed to ensure greater cooperation and effectiveness in tackling environmental crime.


EU Security: EMPACT (European Multidisciplinary Platform Against Criminal Threats) lists Environmental Crime under the 2022-2025 priorities list

EU Environmental Law Ecocide

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Organised crime against the environment is a lucrative business in the EU and around the world. In response, the EU is developing new plans and strengthening existing measures in areas such as waste management and the trade of plants, wildlife and animal by-products as well as the industrial use, trade and handling of environmentally harmful substances. Criminal acts are seen to have a direct negative impact on public health.

Financial losses for the EU and Member States are also high. However, despite environmental crime’s global growth rate of 5% - 7%, the European Commission reports an insignificant increase in cross-border convictions. Environmental crime often involves organised cross-border activity and thus requires collaborative efforts between legal professionals and law enforcement bodies across borders. The lucrative crime results in annual losses that average a couple hundred billion USD, according to UNEP and Interpol’s 2016 estimates.


What is ecocide?

Ecocide is a recently proposed term for the crime of causing extreme environmental damage to the human habitat. It is a crime that is proposed to be directly linked to international criminal law and human rights law.
In recent years, International lawyers have joined forces to prove ecocide is a crime against humanity. Since 2017, for example, the initiative Stop Ecocide Foundation has been spearheading global efforts to recognise the newly proposed crime of ecocide under international criminal law.

Forest in Norway EU Law Environmental Crime Ecocide

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Ecocide and International Collaboration

Ecocide is proposed to be included in the list of serious crimes judged by the International Criminal Court (ICC). An opportunity for enhanced international collaboration, ecocide addresses the environmental crisis, an issue of utmost importance in the twenty-first century. Indeed, environmental legislation very often encourages cross-state legal and political collaboration and thus the goal of establishing an internationally accepted definition of the need to protect our habitat, biodiversity and human health is crucial.


Ecocide in International Criminal Law - a crime against humanity

The eighth episode of IRLI’s legal podcast Horsehair Wigs, produced and hosted by Evelyn McClafferty, herself an award-winning environmental and justice journalist, sheds light on the issue of ecocide. Evelyn McClafferty interviews Maud Sarliève, one of the most knowledgeable legal professionals on the topic.


Environmental Litigation and Climate Litigation

An international criminal and human rights lawyer, Maud Sarliève emphasises the distinction between environmental litigation and climate litigation. Environmental litigation, Maud notes, addresses damage to a certain habitat. Climate litigation, by contrast, focuses on cases of damage relating to the global climate crisis.

Ecocide, she explains, is a new concept proposed to be included in the list of crimes against humanity under the jurisdiction of the International Criminal Court. Maud shows how climate and environmental litigation are tools that go hand in hand with justice efforts in addressing a range of crimes against humanity conducted in times of conflict, as in the example of the war in Ukraine. In times of peace too, Maud remarks, political actors known for undermining the rule of law domestically could be accused of serious international crimes, namely of serious damage incurred to the global climate, as in the case of the destruction of the Amazon in Brazil under the country’s former President, Jair Bolsonaro.


Ecocide and Transnational Human Rights Litigation

On IRLI’s podcast Horsehair Wigs, we also hear from international lawyer Gearóid Ó Cuinn, currently Head of the Global Legal Action Network (GLAN). Gearóid talks about the groundbreaking case of Youth4ClimateJustice, a landmark legal case where young Portuguese citizens are suing over 30 countries over the climate crisis. The case is being heard before the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR).

Gearóid Ó Cuinn, who teaches transnational human rights litigation at the Irish Centre for Human Rights in Galway, draws our attention to the impressive scale of the procedure. It is the biggest climate change case ever heard by the European Court involving a large number of international lawyers.

The case against the accused countries, Gearóid Ó Cuinn explains, rests on their failure to act to avert the climate crisis, thus violating several human rights of the claimants. In Gearóid’s words, the young activists and GLAN are essentially asking the European Court of Human Rights to ensure the obligations of states are collectively consistent with respect to the environmental laws and in line with human rights obligations. The case is expected to produce a legally binding decision for the parties involved.

The fight against environmental crime and the prevention of further climate breakdown calls for coordinated and organised transnational efforts with international institutions and national legal actors.

Listen to Maud Sarliève and Gearóid Ó Cuinn on the topics of ecocide, environmental and climate litigation on Horshair Wigs, a podcast by IRLI, hosted by Evelyn McClafferty.


Episode 8 - Maud Sarliève 

Episode 7 - Gearóid Ó Cuinn



EU Commission - Agreement on Environmental Crime and Criminal Law

Infographic - The EU's fight against environmental crime

Youth 4 Climate Justice

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