What we know about the dirty business of environmental crime in the age of climate change

Environmental crime generates millions of euros of dirty money in the EU alone every year, yet it remains extremely challenging for law enforcement to link cases to organised crime activities. Legal discrepancies among countries, low risk of detection and marginal penalties make environmental crime a highly attractive business for criminal entrepreneurs.

Yet the tide is turning: crimes against the environment are increasingly drawing attention as climate change has become crucial in the agenda of policy makers.  

Europol’s new threat assessment Environmental Crime in the Age of Climate Change offers the most comprehensive intelligence picture to date on this criminal phenomenon in the EU.  

For the purpose of this threat assessment, in-depth analysis was performed on strategic and operational intelligence contributed to Europol. This intelligence concerns hundreds of investigations supported by Europol’s Analysis Project EnviCrime, from its establishment in 2017 until the present. 

Europol’s Executive Director, Catherine de Bolle, said:

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. 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.

What is environmental crime? 

Environmental crime covers a range 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.

Key findings 

  • 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.
  • For the laundering of 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 cornerstones of the environmental crime infrastructure.
  • EU criminal networks are increasingly targeting central and eastern Europe to traffic illicit waste produced in Western Europe. Outside of 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 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 wildlife trafficked to other continents.
  • The waste related to the production of synthetic drugs and of synthetic drug precursors is one of the principal sources of environmental damage linked to organised crime in the EU.
  • EU fraudsters increasingly offer attractive investments on projects related to the preservation of the environment (green investments), persuading victims to invest in ‘sustainable funds’. Criminal networks also exploit energy certificate systems and emission trading schemes and this fraudulent activity is set to increase.
  • One of the main challenges for law enforcement remains the identification of the criminal networks behind environmental offences. A large part of the environmental crime activities are carried out by legal businesses, making these offences less visible. The businesses are often rapidly opened and dissolved and commercial routes frequently change. This indicates the adaptability of the criminal networks and their tendency to use innovative schemes to conceal their operations

Europol’s report goes into depth on the main typologies of environmental crimes investigated in the EU, namely waste and pollution crimes, wildlife trafficking, illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing, forestry crimes and the illegal pet trade. A special focus is paid to climate change, which functions as a push and pull factor for organised crime. The increasing scarcity of natural resources will likely trigger organised crime interests in terms of profit over their future allocation.