Environmental crime: a brief introduction

Tue, 30/08/2022 - 16:28

The #SaveEnvironment and the #OnlyOneEarth buzz

Have you heard the term ‘environmental crime’? But before that, have you lately come across  any news (in any form: print, audio-visual and social media), calling on people to  #SaveEnvironment? Chances are, you haven’t. The likely reason for this is that World Environment Day is observed on 5th June; and it is only then that a flurry of activities and concerted campaigns are run around the theme of environmental protection. We will now need to wait for 5th June 2023 (yes, next year). This is the importance we give to protecting the environment and its ecosystem. As of now, the public discourse around protecting the environment is much less than what is required in this Anthropogenic era. Is it any wonder then that we never or seldom hear of ‘environmental crime’?

#OnlyOneEarth was the campaign for World Environment Day 2022.  At this juncture, our only one earth’s climatic conditions are changing rapidly. Our continent saw its warmest April on record this year. This was +2.62°C above the global average temperature, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (USA). Based on the Paris Agreement, 195 countries agreed to limit global warming to well below 2°C and are pursuing efforts to limit it to 1.5°C. We know that greenhouse gas emissions and its subsequent impact on the reflectivity and absorption of the sun’s energy are the leading causes of climate change. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has found that emissions from fossil fuels are the dominant cause of global warming. In 2018, 89% of global CO2 emissions came from fossil fuels and the manufacturing industry. Controlling these causes induced by profit-driven fossil fuel companies and industries are imperative to limit climate change and protect the environment, as climate change poses a threat to the existence of every life on this #OnlyOneEarth. In addition to this, environmental crimes also play a role in exacerbating climate change. These crimes are becoming a global problem and a catalyst for endangering the environment and its ecosystems. Therefore, this blog is written to introduce environmental crime, its types and its impacts on our #OnlyOneEarth.

What constitutes an environmental crime?

Any illegal activity directly affecting the environment and its ecosystem is simply defined as environmental crime. Meanwhile, the descriptive definition of the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) and International Criminal Police Organisation (INTERPOL) is ‘illegal activities harming the environment and aimed at benefiting individuals or groups or companies from the exploitation of, damage to, trade or theft of natural resources, including, but not limited to serious crimes and transnational organised crime’. Therefore, it includes activities like dumping of garbage in public spaces instead of proper disposal or small, medium and large enterprises causing pollution in excess of ‘permissible levels.’ Our Constitution and some special and local laws (SLLs) provide provisions to protect the environment in our country. But apathy towards the enforcement of these laws is widespread. Amid this, the Union government has recently proposed amendments under the pretext of decriminalising certain provisions of SLLs meant to protect the environment and forests.

climate change

Waste dumped by commuters in Thiruvanmiyur Railway Station, Chennai | CAG

Just as the environment and its ecosystems are complex and diverse, so are crimes against the environment. These crimes can include, but are not limited to:

  • improper collection, transport, recovery or disposal of waste
  • illegal operation of factories in which a dangerous activity is carried out
  • factories with dangerous substances or preparations flouting norms wilfully and negligently
  • illegal mining of minerals (including sand) and trafficking of precious metals
  • indiscriminate usage of banned fertilisers which pose health hazards to humans
  • killing, destruction, possession or trade of protected wild flora and fauna
  • production, importation, exportation, marketing or use of ozone-depleting substances

Impact of environmental crime

The above-mentioned different types of environmental crimes, in various ways, pose a threat to the environment and its ecosystem which consists of many species, including humans. For example, excessive felling of trees significantly affects the livelihoods of people and animals that depend on the tree. As per the WWF’s estimate, up to 150 crore trees are now being cut down annually worldwide. Besides, it also instigates climate change. Further, the extraction of minerals destroys non-renewable resources. Overfishing depletes fish stocks and increases the risk of extinction of certain marine species. Similarly, poaching of wild animals affects their food chain and biodiversity. Further, solid waste management has emerged as a major problem in India and elsewhere. Improper collection, dumping and burning of garbage cause various temporary and long-term health problems for humans. The Lancet planetary health report states that 16.7 lakh people died in India due to air pollution in 2019 alone.

A joint report by the UNEP and the INTERPOL shows the growth and impact of environmental crime. Globally, the economic value of the illegal market in environmental crime is estimated to be as high as USD 91 billion (≈INR seven lakh crore). The illegal economy of crimes against the environment are comparable to other conventional organised crimes like drug trafficking (≈INR 22 lakh crore), arms trafficking (≈INR 19 lakh crore), and human trafficking (≈INR 10 lakh crore). In this way, we can see that crimes against the environment are the fourth most lucrative crime in the world. The report also asserts that environmental crimes around the globe are on the rise by five to seven per cent every year. According to this report, the illegal market value of illegal logging and timber trafficking is the highest  (i.e., ≈INR three lakh crore). This is followed by  mining and trafficking of minerals/precious metals (≈INR 95,000 crore), exploitation of fish and marine resources (≈INR 87,000 crore), public dumping of hazardous waste (≈INR 79,000 crore) and poaching and trafficking of wildlife (≈INR 55,000 crore).

Our environment—taken for granted

Why do environmental crimes not attract the attention of our governments? What is the reason for the lack of awareness among people about environmental crimes? What we think of as ‘crime’ might help answer these two questions. Generally, an act is considered a crime if it affects an individual(s) or their property. Therefore, we file a complaint with the police for theft, burglary, robbery or being subjected to injury or threatened by an individual or group. We are ‘directly affected’ in the above situations. Perhaps if we were not affected by any incident, no thought of complaining would arise in our minds. Thus, ‘victimisation’ is an essential factor in any crime. Most of us think that the environment and its ecosystems are the ‘victims’ of environmental crime, and it ‘does not directly affect us.’ Therefore, we remain lethargic and keep our peace while ‘our environment is getting victimised continuously.’ However, we fail to understand that directly or indirectly, environmental crime affects all living beings, including humans. If this ignorance continues, we are hurtling to the brink of a sixth mass extinction. Thus, it is time to ensure the accountability of industries for their environmental impacts. We need joint action from elected representatives, civil society organisations, the pollution control boards/committees, environment and climate change, forest, police, energy, industries, municipal administration and other relevant government departments to work together against environmental crimes, because we have #OnlyOneEarth .