Environmental crime generates millions of euros of dirty money every year in the European Union alone, but it remains extremely difficult for law enforcement to connect cases to organised crime activities. Legal discrepancies among countries, low risk of detection and marginal penalties make environmental crime a very attractive business for criminal entrepreneurs.
However, something is changing: crimes against the environment are attracting more and more attention as climate change has become a crucial matter in the agenda of policy makers.
Europol’s new threat assessment, Environmental Crime in the Age of Climate Change, offers the most comprehensive intelligence study yet on this criminal phenomenon in the EU.
Law enforcement investigations across the EU show that there is an organised crime component behind most environmental crime schemes, which are often led by legal companies. Europol has also seen a significant increase in the number of cross-border cases.
Environmental crime covers a range of activities that infringe environmental legislation and cause significant damage or risk to the environment, human health or both. The main risks include the following:
• Most of the individuals involved in environmental crime are opportunistic legal business owners/operators who decide to increase their chances of profit by establishing a criminal enterprise.
• To launder the illicit proceeds, criminals mainly use the same legal businesses in which they operate (i.e. waste management businesses, retail stores, fishing companies, etc.). Document fraud, abuse of discrepancies in legislation and widespread corruption are the pillars of the environmental crime infrastructure.
• EU criminal networks are increasingly targeting Central and Eastern Europe to traffic illicit waste produced in Western Europe. Outside the EU, European traffickers mainly target South-East Asia as a destination for illicit plastic waste and end-of-life ships, and Africa for waste of electric and electronic equipment.
• The EU functions as a hub for global wildlife trafficking. It is the main destination for trafficked wildlife, but it is also a point of origin for endemic fauna trafficked to other continents.
• The waste related to the production of synthetic drugs and synthetic drug precursors is one of the main sources of environmental damage linked to organised crime in the EU.
The Europol report delves into the main typologies of environmental crime investigated in the EU, namely: waste and pollution offences; wildlife trafficking; illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing; forestry offences and the illegal pet trade. Special attention is given to climate change, which functions as a push and pull factor for organised crime. The growing scarcity of natural resources is likely to trigger organised crime interests in terms of profits in the immediate future.