February 18, 2021
This article first appeared in the January 2021 issue of Business Law International (Vol 22, No 1), and is reproduced by kind permission of the International Bar Association, London, UK. © International Bar Association.
Environmentalism is drawing ever-increasing attention and support across the globe, with climate change, energy extraction and land use issues fueling increasingly frequent and devastating natural disasters, from the fires in South America and Australia in 2019 to the current COVID-19 pandemic. If a pandemic is first and foremost a health issue, ecological conditions such as urbanization, food demand putting animals and humans in close proximity, temperatures, and ease of travel facilitate the emergence and contagion of new viruses. Celebrity environmentalists and global movements have driven an increase in media coverage around these issues, which they view as the main existential threats. Meanwhile, the high costs of dealing with the consequences of these events – culminating in the unprecedented shutting down of entire economies in the case of Covid-19 – is prompting politicians around the globe to press for change. As climate-change-related disasters proliferate and increasingly disrupt lives and economic activity, attention to ecocide will accelerate. With it, the pressure for public action in the form of public shaming, trade embargos and sanctions will intensify.
Ecocide is defined as “the destruction of large areas of the natural environment as a consequence of human activity”. To put ecocide in context, in terms of scale, environmental crime is the fourth-largest criminal category, surpassed only by drugs, counterfeiting and human trafficking. Experts have projected this type of crime to grow by five to seven per cent annually. The Financial Action Task Force has defined environmental crime as a “designated category of offence” in relation to money laundering, meaning that handling proceeds from environmental crimes should constitute acts of money laundering in local law. Many global and regional bodies recognize specific acts as environmental crimes. In relation to deforestation and illegal logging, these primarily focus on the illegal trade component and are driven by “compliance with the laws of the country where it is harvested”. The challenge is that national laws, their definition and application, are difficult to enforce, and often allow, and even promote, ecocide for profit or financial gain or to achieve some other policy objective.