Climate cops: stopping environmental crime

By Barney Wharam

The European Union has been very successful in producing a raft of ambitious laws with the aim of protecting the environment. This process of law-making has been ongoing for 30 years – but enforcing laws effectively is often the greater challenge.

One problem is that each country has its own approach to law enforcement. Environmental crimes can be punished with criminal (criminal procedure in the courts resulting in fines and prison sentences) or administrative sanctions (typically a fine). A key difference between these methods is that the complexity and cost of bringing a case to trial when criminal sanctions are used. Countries which rely on the criminal justice system to prosecute breaches of environmental law have prosecution rates as low as 3% (UK). This compares to countries which rely on administrative fines which are much more likely to be implemented when a breach is found e.g. ~50% (Germany)*.

Although there are differences between countries in dealing with environmental crimes, the consequences can often be international: pollution can cross borders, waste is illegally transported between countries and there is illegal trade in endangered species. The way in which European countries coordinate their response to environmental crimes is through Environmental Enforcement Networks (EENs). EENs allow various regulatory bodies across different countries to communicate and share knowledge and approaches to common environmental problems.


One promising approach is to use satellite imagery to prosecute environmental crimes. In Australia satellite monitoring of trees on private land prevent farmers from committing illegal deforestation. Changes in forest cover identified by satellite can trigger investigation on the ground. In the UK illegal landfill sites and storage of scrap cars have been monitored using satellites with the evidence being used in court.

Although satellite imagery technology has long been available, satellite images are often insufficient evidence in themselves to successfully prosecute in court without other supporting evidence. Satellite images of pollution spills from shipping is not accurate enough to determine which ship is responsible in crowded areas and some pollution spills look the same as natural phenomena. Future use of nano-satellites (very small 1-10 kg, cheap satellites) and drone technology provide further opportunity for environmental agencies to use their own dedicated aerial photography to enforce environmental law.

Overall there are three major factors which contribute towards the level of compliance to laws to protect the environment. Firstly, compliance must be promoted through incentives, assistance and distribution of information. Secondly, compliance levels need to be effectively monitored through audits and inspections. Lastly, effective enforcement through appropriate sanctions must be used against criminals to deter others. What is very important is that the threat of sanctions must be credible to act as an effective deterrent.

This is a quick summary of a thematic issue on the subject of environmental compliance by the Science for Environment Policy.

* It is not clear how prosecution rates compare across different countries due to differences in reporting, authors note that the EU needs to introduce consistent methods for monitoring the number and outcomes of environmental crimes

Image: “pollution” by Stan Paczkowski used under creative commons