Europe’s Environmental Crime Problem

July 1, 2022
Crimes against the environment are increasingly drawing attention, as climate change has become crucial on the agenda of policymakers, yet Europol suggests the outlook remains bleak when tackling issues such as waste management and wildlife trafficking.

Crimes against the environment are increasingly drawing attention, as climate change has become crucial on the agenda of policymakers, yet Europol suggests the outlook remains bleak when tackling issues such as waste management and wildlife trafficking.

Millions of euros in dirty money is being generated by environmental crime in the EU alone every year.

However, Europol has warned in its latest threat assessment that it remains extremely challenging for law enforcement to link cases to organised crime activities.

Environmental crimes have become pertinent issues for the market and regulators alike in recent years.

For example, last year, Mastercard launched its Wildlife Impact Card, which coincided with the payments giant partnering with Conservation International to protect and restore wildlife habitats around the world, including priority areas equal to 40m hectares of landscapes and 4.5 square kilometres of seascapes globally by 2030.

Earlier this year, meanwhile, Financial Action Task Force president Marcus Pleyer said that environmental crime is a priority for the standards setter.

In the EU, legal discrepancies among countries, low risk of detection and marginal penalties make environmental crime a highly attractive business for criminal entrepreneurs, according to Europol.

“Law enforcement investigations across the EU show that there is an organised crime component behind most environmental crime schemes, which are often fronted by legal business ventures,” said Catherine de Bolle, Europol’s executive director, in a statement.

She continued: “At Europol, we’ve also seen a sharp increase in the number of cross-border cases. For this reason, a coordinated investigative approach is necessary, and Europol is well-positioned to support national authorities in tackling this growing challenge.”

Environmental crime covers a range of activities in breach of EU environmental legislation. For example, this can include killing, destruction, possession or trade of protected wild animals or plant species, as well as the improper collection, transport, recovery or disposal of waste.

In the context of waste crimes, Europol has concluded that steps towards the alignment of legislative frameworks at national and international levels are improving the ability to monitor and enforce environmental protection, involving higher penalties for infringements.

However, dedicated units countering waste crimes are still only present in a few law enforcement bodies in the EU.

Increased budgets, the development of specialised environmental units in every member state and filling technical knowledge gaps are key aspects that need to continue to be addressed in the coming years within the EU law enforcement community, Europol has recommended.

In addition, authorities need to ramp up their monitoring of alternative and less established areas of the financial services sector.

For example, Europol has warned that more controls may divert some trading activities to more secure, anonymous areas (for instance, the dark web), and prompt traffickers to increase their use of encrypted communications and other technologies, such as fintech and cryptocurrencies, for financial transfers among criminals located in different continents.

According to Europol, western EU member states function as both origin and transit countries for illicit waste trafficking that is increasingly targeting central and eastern member states, with Poland, Bulgaria, Germany and Romania becoming key destinations.

Outside the EU, European traffickers mainly target South-East Asia as a destination for illicit plastic waste and end-of-life vessels, and Africa for waste of electronic equipment.

Europol suggests that criminal networks are also starting to explore Africa for the illegal export of plastic, household and urban waste, as a response to bans imposed by several Asian countries and Turkey.

Remnants of metals and other materials are also resold as halogens in various African markets, according to the report.

In the recent past, Nigeria has emerged as a key destination for waste trafficked outside the EU, along with African countries such as Ghana, Libya and Senegal.

The EU also 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 wildlife trafficked to other continents.

This is a very profitable sector, with the illegal trafficking of European eels alone generating between €2bn to €3bn in yearly criminal profits.

Criminal networks operating in Europe traffic both exotic fauna, which can vary from rhinos to leopards, and exotic flora, especially cacti and corals.

Europol’s research suggests that some of these are commonly traded under the label of medicinal products.

According to the Netherlands’ headquartered agency, wildlife traffickers benefit from a general culture of impunity, which fosters the idea that this type of crime does not really affect human beings and therefore is less significant.

Although recent changes in the regulatory framework at the international level have resulted in a decrease in the number of incidents involving poaching of species at risk of extinction, such as elephants, European airports continue to be used as transit points for the ivory illegally traded between West Africa and Asia.

Europol’s key findings suggest that the majority of environmental crime actors are opportunistic legal business owners/operators who decide to increase their chances of profit by establishing a criminal venture.

These networks are mainly composed of low-level associates who operate under the command of few leaders and are located far from the criminal activities that are being undertaken.

For the laundering of the illicit proceeds, meanwhile, criminals mainly use the same legal businesses in which they operate, such as waste management businesses, while document fraud, abuse of discrepancies in legislation and widespread corruption are the cornerstones of the environmental crime infrastructure, according to Europol.

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