A hiker walks between winding canals carved by water on the surface of the melting Longyearbreen glacier during a summer heat wave in the Svalbard Archipelago on July 31, 2020 near Longyearbyen, Norway. Global warming is having a dramatic impact on Svalbard, which, according to Norwegian meteorological data, includes an increase in average winter temperatures of 10 degrees Celsius over the past 30 years, causing disruption to the entire local ecosystem.

Sean Gallup | Getty Images News | Getty Images

A campaign to criminalize widespread environmental degradation is rapidly gaining traction.

Ecocide, literally translated from Greek and Latin as “killing our homeland”, is an umbrella term for all forms of mass damage to ecosystems, from industrial pollution to the release of microplastics into the oceans.

The term has been debated by academics, climate activists, and lawyers for more than half a century. But it is only in the last few years that the idea has spread more and more. Pope Francis, Swedish climate activist Greta Thunberg and French President Emmanuel Macron support the movement to recognize ecocide as an international crime.

Now a team of top environmental lawyers are working to define it. A panel convened by the Stop Ecocide Foundation will release the legal definition of ecocide on Tuesday to pave the way for environmental degradation acts to be included in the mandate of the International Criminal Court. In addition to war crimes, genocide and crimes against humanity, ecocide could be established in The Hague.

“There have been working definitions in the past, but this is the first time anything has been convened globally and in response to political demand,” Jojo Mehta, co-founder of the Stop Ecocide campaign, told CNBC by phone.

“What this shows is that the space is opening up in the political world to actually look for a solution like this. This conversation is no longer falling on deaf ears and is actually picking up speed at a fair rate,” said Mehta.

How did we get here?

The term ecocide was first coined in 1970 to characterize the massive damage and destruction of ecosystems, although decades later it would remain on the fringes of the environmental movement.

It was not until almost 50 years later that a campaign to promote ecocide as an international crime celebrated its greatest public advance to date. That moment came when the small island nation of Vanuatu in the South Pacific addressed the annual gathering of the States Parties to the ICC on December 2, 2019.

“We believe this radical idea deserves serious discussion,” said Vanuatu’s ambassador to the European Union, John Licht. The call was soon taken up by the government of the Maldives.

The climate crisis poses an existential threat to the island states of Vanuatu and the Maldives. Both countries are threatened with a considerable loss of land due to rising sea levels. However, the actions that have led to rising global temperatures have taken place almost entirely elsewhere.

It is a declaration that we have come to a point where we need to stop destroying the planet.

Rachel Killean

Senior Lecturer in Law at Queen’s University Belfast

Proponents of the Stop Ecocide campaign argue that a stand-alone law to punish high-level decision-makers is needed to create “a moral red line” for widespread environmental degradation.

“There are encouraging signs. You would not have believed how quickly ecocide has broken out in recent years,” Rachel Killean, law professor at Queen’s University Belfast, told CNBC by phone.

“I think there are still huge political barriers because ecocide is affecting powerful states, but I wouldn’t have predicted that we would be where we are today. So there may be enough bump in environmental issues to get it through. “

Why does it matter?

Proponents of the Stop Ecocide campaign say there are a number of benefits to having the term recognized in international criminal law. These include expanding international accountability and deterrence, opening the door to improved natural rights, access to reparations and an improved public understanding of the scale and scope of the ecological crisis.

Members of the Extinction Rebellion hold a banner reading “Make Ecocide a Crime” in Parliament Square on August 28, 2020 in London, England.

Peter Sommer | Getty Images News | Getty Images

“If we had an ecocide, it could mean that you could potentially prosecute environmental crimes without being linked to widespread human atrocity. You could also pursue environmental crime that happens in peacetime: it’s a different way of seeing atrocity, “Killean said.

“It is a declaration that we have come to a point where we must stop destroying the planet. The number of people who are destroying the planet is actually quite few and causing massive damage to our homes and our communities around the world through their actions. ” So there has to be something to say that you can’t do this anymore. Ecocide may be part of that, “she added.

What about the challenges of ecocide law?

There are a number of potential stumbling blocks. For example, international criminal law would only apply to individuals, which raises the question of whether the ICC’s recognition of ecocides can actually have a meaningful impact on business practices.

It is also believed that some states are unlikely to be willing to expose themselves to perceived economic disadvantage by enforcing domestic criminal sanctions.

Should ecocide be criminalized, countries would not be required to ratify the ICC ruling, and there are several countries with strong ecological footprints – including the US, China, India and Russia – that have not acceded to the ICC’s Rome statute.

A man paddles on a boat while plastic bags float on the surface of the water of the Buriganga River in Dhaka on January 21, 2020.

MUNIR UZ ZAMAN | AFP | Getty Images

Mehta of Stop Ecocide argued that a transition period would help address some of these concerns, noting that the ICC has broader applicability than one might think, as non-members could be expelled via the UN Security Council, for example.

When it was suggested that ecocide should not be viewed as a ‘silver bullet’ to eradicate environmental degradation, Mehta replied, ‘I think that’s absolutely correct … But the way we look at it, you could say that there is an acupuncture needle in it feel that there is a pressure point here. “

“Right now, when you stand up for human rights and social justice, you at least know that mass murder and torture are unimaginable. You are a criminal and you will be convicted. But if you’re in the environmental realm, you don’t have to. You stand on a void. There is one basic piece missing that says that so much damage is just not allowed. “

“It’s very difficult,” she said. “Ask a conservationist and we’ll tell you.”

Mehta said ecocide laws are unlikely to be enough to tackle the environmental crises that are emerging in many areas, but “it is necessary”. She estimated it would take four to five years to put the Ecocide Act into practice.