Nature and Biodiversity

What is ecocide and which countries recognize it in law?

Gavel hammer used in a court of law determining matters like ecocide.

Defining crimes against the environment – or ecocide – could help tackle the climate crisis. Image: Unsplash/Tingey Injury Law Firm

Sean Fleming
Senior Writer, Forum Agenda
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Justice and Law

This article is part of: Centre for Nature and Climate

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This article was first published in July 2021 and updated in August 2023.

  • More countries are considering making environmental damage – or "ecocide" – a crime.
  • The legal definition for ecocide was developed by international lawyers in 2021.
  • The consequences of environmental damage are highlighted in the World Economic Forum’s Global Risks Report 2023.

More and more countries are taking steps towards making ecocide a crime.

In 2021, a panel of criminal and environmental lawyers from around the world created a legal definition for "ecocide" as the basis of a push to criminalize mass damage and destruction of ecosystems.

The definition was made available for states to consider and is part of an ongoing effort by NGO Stop Ecocide to add environmental damage to the list of international crimes at the International Criminal Court.

This would create an arrestable offence for anyone committing ecocide, and would make individuals responsible for acts or decisions that cause severe damage to the environment liable for criminal prosecution.

Have you read?

What is ecocide?

The expert panel defines ecocide as: “unlawful or wanton acts committed with knowledge that there is a substantial likelihood of severe and either widespread or long-term damage to the environment being caused by those acts”.

The call for greater protection for the environment has been increasing in urgency and volume in recent years. But the idea of making environmental harm a crime is over 50 years old, as the US-based media organization NPR points out.

Definition of ecocide signed by panellists at 1972 UN Conference on the Human Environment.
The panellists’ signatures on the proposed ecocide definition. Image: Stop Ecocide

In 1972, the Swedish prime minister, Olof Palme, gave a speech at the UN Conference on the Human Environment, in which he said: “The immense destruction brought about by indiscriminate bombing, by large-scale use of bulldozers and herbicides is an outrage sometimes described as ecocide, which requires urgent international attention.”

Which countries recognize ecocide as a crime?

Currently, ecocide is a crime in 11 countries – including Russia and Ukraine – and it is being considered in another 27 countries, according to Thomson Reuters Foundation.

In Mexico, Karina Marlen Barrón Perales, congresswoman for the state of Nuevo León, recently submitted an ecocide bill to congress to criminalize “any unlawful or wanton act committed with the knowledge that there is a substantial likelihood of severe and either widespread or long-term damage to the environment”. If the bill is passed, perpetrators of ecocide could be imprisoned for up to 15 years and fined up to $90 a day, reports UK newspaper The Guardian.

Similar proposals have been submitted in The Netherlands, Scotland and Brazil, while Belgium and the Catalan parliament are finalizing their versions of ecocide law.

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How is the World Economic Forum fighting the climate crisis?

Ecocide and the global risks landscape

The consequences of environmental damage are highlighted in the World Economic Forum’s Global Risks Report 2023, where climate change and biodiversity collapse dominate the top five risks facing the world in the coming decade.

“By destroying the ecosystems on which we depend, we are destroying the foundations of our civilization and mortgaging the living conditions of all future generations," said Valérie Cabanes, a French lawyer and one of the panellists who worked on the 2021 ecocide proposal. "This is no less serious than war crimes, crimes against humanity, or the crimes of genocide or aggression. As well as being a major issue of global socio-environmental justice, is it not ultimately the survival of the human species that is at stake?”

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