The Italian Penal Code on environmental crimes – Law 68 of 22 May 2015

It has been reported in the media that France has joined the “club” of countries condemned for not having acted to halt climate change. The list is growing longer: the Netherlands, Pakistan, Colombia, Ireland … France has been convicted in the Paris administrative court of “ecological harm” because of its inaction on the climate. The case was launched in 2018 by four NGOs with the backing of a petition that had gathered 2.3 million signatures. Recognition of this responsibility opens the way to future legal challenges to oblige states to take action on the climate.

We wondered whether Italy could be similarly sanctioned, so we searched Italian legislation to find out. Law 68 of the Penal Code of 22 May 2015 – which came into force 29/05/2015 – contains Measures on environmental crimes. It deals with pollution, environmental disasters, movement of radioactive material, failure to carry out land reclamation, obstruction of checks, as well as aggravating circumstances in relation to the mafia.

Can we as Italian citizens consider ourselves to be protected, and thus reassured? The law is there, but who is applying it and how? Are cases being brought in response to daily reports of environmental disasters or pollution? If the State is not acting to ensure that the law is obeyed, does it become equally responsible? Again, if the State fails to act in order to protect the environment, can it be prosecuted?

This is the text of the first article of the law:

Art. 1

 1. The following is inserted into the penal code after title VI of the second volume:

 «Title VI-b. Crimes against the environment.

  Art. 452-b. (Environmental pollution). Punishments of two to six years’ imprisonment and fines of between 10,000 and 100,000 euros will be imposed on anyone who deliberately causes significant and measurable damage or deterioration to either of the following:

   1) the water, air, or substantial or significant areas of the soil or subsoil;

   2) the biodiversity of the flora or fauna of an ecosystem, including farmland.

  When the pollution is caused in a natural protected area or one that is subject to protections for its landscape, environment, history, art, architecture or archaeology, or damages protected species of animals or plants, the penalties are increased.

So anyone who causes pollution or damage either pays a fine or goes to prison. However, there is another factor that immediately springs to mind: Italy’s judicial system does not operate at the same pace as that of nature. This means that prosecutions are often irrelevant compared to the damage done. So the “polluter pays” principle should be supplemented by one that says “those who cause damage must repair it “. Prison and fines, even of 100,000 euros, are not in themselves effective in restraining those who make damaging choices for nature, of which – let’s not forget! – human beings are a part. If, on the other hand, an industry, a factory, a farm was obliged to repair the damage done and compensate the local residents, they would think hard before acting against nature’s limits. Cases such as the PFAS pollution of the water table and domestic tap water in the Veneto, the toxic waste dumps of the Terra dei Fuochi in Campania, the familiar environmental scandal of ILVA in Taranto all spring to mind.

We invite our readers to let us know of cases that have been brought and gone through the judicial process and their outcomes, including any penalties imposed.