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Legitimate investors are financing environmental crime


One of the most profitable global criminal enterprises is one you might not expect. It is crimes like illegal fishing and logging, waste trafficking and trade in wildlife. And the financial sector is reaping huge rewards from these assaults against the natural environment on which we depend.

It is difficult to overstate the damage environmental crimes cause. By destroying ecosystems and depleting natural assets, such crimes destroy livelihoods, undermine governing institutions and impede our ability to address climate change.

As a new report by Finance for Biodiversity (F4B) points out, such crimes generate up to $280 billion each year, decreasing tax revenues by some $30 billion per year, with poorer, environmentally rich countries losing the most.

Financial institutions sustain the incentive — often unwittingly — by investing in enterprises that benefit from such crimes. Through the profits made from these investments, these institutions effectively launder the proceeds of environmental crime.

Anti-money-laundering (AML) rules are supposed to prevent the conversion of proceeds from illegal activities into clean money.

For example, tightened rules and strengthened enforcement in recent years have made it more difficult to finance terrorism. But inadequate information and technology shortfalls hamper such efforts, with regulators struggling to keep up with increasingly sophisticated approaches to obfuscating the sources of funds.

When it comes to environmental crimes, the application of AML rules is particularly weak. To its credit, the Financial Action Task Force — the inter-governmental agency charged with combating money laundering and financing of terrorism — has raised its profile in this area.

But significant action has remained largely confined to the illegal wildlife trade — a criminal enterprise that, despite affecting thousands of wildlife species and millions of people, is only a small part of the problem.

But even if existing AML rules were applied to more environmental crimes, it would not be enough. As the F4B report shows, the returns on investment derived from environmental crimes would also have to be subject to AML rules.

Financial institutions, including pension funds, not only provide channels through which perpetrators of environmental crimes launder the profits; they also invest in nature-dependent sectors such as food, wood products and infrastructure, the profitability of which can be increased through environmental crime.

For example, illegal logging can make more land available for agricultural production, thereby lowering costs, increasing output and improving quality.

The result is higher profits for businesses — and bigger returns for their investors. While the investments may technically be legal, the returns are partly derived from criminal activity, thus amounting to illicit proceeds that must be regulated accordingly.

In theory, financial institutions already have an incentive not to support businesses that are benefitting from environmental crimes: Such firms face the threat of fines or even the forced suspension of some activities, making them a riskier bet for investors. But the risks are too small to be an effective deterrent to investors; in most cases, environmental laws are poorly enforced and, where fines are imposed, they are usually small.

© Project Syndicate, 2022


The author is chair of Finance for Biodiversity (F4B)

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