Environmental liability rules

EU legislation is in place to help to prevent and remedy in EU countries significant environmental damage, such as damage to protected species and habitats, surface and ground water and land. The environmental liability directive has established an EU-wide liability regime, based on the polluter-pays principle.

Under the directive, EU countries designate various public bodies as guardians of the environment. They must identify liable polluters and ensure those responsible for causing either an imminent threat of, or actual, environmental damage undertake or finance the required preventative or remedial measures.

Unlike standard civil liability rules, the directive does not entitle private parties to be compensated as a result of environmental damage. Instead, the designated public bodies determine and assess the extent of environmental damage and agree in cooperation with those responsible which remedial measures should be taken.

Scope and implementation of rules

Since the environmental liability directive (ELD) was introduced in 2004, it has been amended three times to increase the scope of liability to environmental damage caused through the management of waste from extractive industries, the operation of certain storage sites and activities in marine waters.

On the ground, the directive is implemented by the public bodies appointed by EU countries. Its implementation is supported by a group of ELD government experts from EU countries who meet regularly with the European Commission to provide advice and coordinate ELD activities in individual countries.

Multi-annual work programme

In collaboration with the ELD government experts, the Commission has launched the multi-annual work programme (MAWP) 2017-2020 to make the environmental liability directive deliver better on its original objectives.

MAWP's three pillars are

  • improving the evidence base for evaluation and decision-making for the Commission, EU countries, stakeholders and practitioners
  • supporting the implementation through tools and measures for more even implementation
  • ensuring sufficient availability of financial security, in particular for large losses or in case of insolvency  

The European Commission published reports in 2010 and 2014 on how effective the implementation of the ELD directive has been to date. 

How to report environmental damage

Individuals and non-governmental organisations (NGOs) are entitled by the ELD directive to notify designated public bodies of any environmental damage – or imminent threat – and to challenge the action or inaction of a public body to prevent and remedy environmental damage.