Cruises and the environment: The dark side of ocean cruises

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Key Point
  • More than a million people are expected to take cruises in Australia this summer, an increase of nearly a third from pre-pandemic numbers.
  • However, experts warn that cruising remains a major source of air, water and land pollution.
  • Research shows that the carbon footprint of one large cruise ship can be greater than that of 12,000 cars.
Despite the sordid link to virus outbreaks in the not-so-distant past, industry figures show that around 1.1 million people are expected to take cruises in Australia this summer.
This is almost a third higher than pre-pandemic levels.
The recent dual outbreak of COVID-19 and gastroenteritis on the Grand Princess, as well as other post-pandemic virus outbreaks, appear to have done little to disrupt the boom.

While welcome news for those in the industry, the popularity of these giant offshore resorts is a worrying trend for others.

How bad are cruises for the environment?

Available research on the environmental impact of cruising paints a bleak picture.
Marine Pollution Bulletin’s December 2021 report states that “despite advances in technology and some monitoring programs, cruising remains a major source of air, water (freshwater and marine) and land pollution. “It is a potential source, affecting vulnerable habitats, areas and species.” About physical and mental human health risks. ”

The researchers noted that these health risks affect not only the ship’s crew and passengers, but also people on land, including residents of the places where cruise ships dock.

Cruise ships’ sewage, waste, air and water pollution also have a negative impact on the environment, the researchers write in a journal published on behalf of the International Maritime Organization.
“In this regard, we argue that the cruise industry should be held accountable for greater oversight and regulation to prevent or minimize the growing negative impacts on the environment and human health. ” concluded the authors.

“Despite technological advances to reduce environmental impact, cruising, one of the fastest growing sectors of the tourism industry, remains a major source of environmental pollution and environmental damage. ”, the report added.

Much more optional pollution sources

The environmental pollution caused by cruise ships is much more avoidable than transportation such as cars, trains, and planes because it is necessary for our daily lives.
“The thing to remember is that cruises don’t really serve the purpose of transportation,” says Wise, a group of planners focused on making transportation more sustainable. Liam Davies, deputy director of the Transport Research Institute, told SBS News.
“Their purpose is to have fun floating on water or burning diesel. So they’re almost all completely avoidable emissions,” he added.

“Another thing to think about is that they tend to burn a very poor quality fuel source called bunker oil. And bunker oil is the sludge that’s at the bottom of refineries when they make diesel, so , low-quality diesel and incredibly high in sulfur dioxide.”

The Grand Princess Hamilton cruise ship is docked at Melbourne's Station Pier, with the beach and waves visible in the foreground.

The Grand Princess Hamilton Cruise recently suffered a dual outbreak of COVID-19 and gastroenteritis. sauce: AAP / james ross

Risk mitigation steps

Cruise Lines International Association (CLIA), the world’s largest cruise line trade association, told SBS News: “Cruise lines must ensure environmental protection in line with the Paris Agreement and pursue net-zero emissions by 2050. “We are working internationally.” International Maritime Organization. ”
“Enormous progress has been made in this area, and cruise lines continue to invest billions of dollars in new ships, new technology, and new fuels in pursuit of their goals,” CLIA wrote.
In April 2022, CLIA announced a series of sustainability initiatives.

“We are reducing the carbon footprint of our ships at anchor and at sea, investing in advanced environmental technologies and partnering with cities and ports on sustainable destination management.”

“By equipping cruise ships with the ability to connect to shore power and using it when available, the cruise industry stands ready to reduce emissions during port calls for the benefit of local communities.” CLIA said at the time.

CLIA also proudly touted the industry’s benefits, reporting that Australia’s cruise industry generated a record $5.63 billion for the national economy in the 2022-23 financial year.

Low-grade fuel leads to increased emissions

From January 1, 2020, ships are prohibited from using fuel oil with a sulfur content of more than 0.5%.
But, as Davis points out, this threshold is much higher than the 0.001 per cent limit imposed on diesel fuel in Australia, for example.
Transport & Environment, Europe’s leading clean transport group, also said cruise ships could rely on fuel with sulfur content up to 500 times higher than European car sulfur standards, depending on the destination. points out.
In a study published last year, the group estimated that cruise ships sailing in European waters will emit more than 8 million tonnes of CO2 in 2022, the equivalent of 50,000 flights between New York and Paris.
Other available studies show similarly worrying similarities, with one study from the University of Exeter finding that “the carbon footprint of a large cruise ship could exceed 12,000 cars.” It is suggested.

“Passengers on an Antarctic cruise can produce as much CO2 emissions during an average seven-day voyage as the average European does in a year,” the study also found.

A Carnival cruise ship sits in Sydney's Darling Harbor on a rainy day. Sydney Harbor Bridge is in the background.

Cruise ship health risks affect not only passengers on board, but also people on land, including residents of the places where cruise ships dock. sauce: AAP / bianca de marchi

Is the damage worse than planes and hotels?

Despite recently introduced regulations and sulfur limits, a June 2023 report from the Brussels-based NGO Transport & Environment states that “Europe’s 218 cruise ships will exceed 1 billion cars in 2022. It emits 4.4 times more sulfur oxides than all cars on the continent.”
A 2010 study published in Energy Policy, a monthly peer-reviewed academic journal for research on energy policy and energy supply, found that cruise ships, on average, emit more than three times as much as airplanes, and 12 times more than hotels. It turned out to be more than double that.
This last point of comparison is important.
After all, a cruise ship is what Davis describes as “essentially a very large floating hotel.” Therefore, continuous power supply is required even when in port.
There are two ways to do this, Davis explained.

Cruise ships can also use ship-to-shore power, where the ship is basically connected to a long extension cord and connected to the main power grid on land, or use the engine as a generator to power the engine. It can also be operated continuously. .

“Most of them will just run their own generators unless they have ship-to-shore power,” Davis said.

All of this has fueled the anger of environmentalists, who are increasingly calling on the cruise ship industry, the fastest growing sector of the entire travel industry, to clean up its act.

sincerity of vows

But while environmental groups question the sincerity of such pledges, the growing environmental stigma surrounding cruise ships in recent years has little to do with the cruise ship industry’s surge in popularity. Not yet.
The latest industry group report predicts cruise ticket sales will recover from the pandemic-induced slowdown and return to 2019’s record levels.
Carnival Cruises, the world’s largest cruise line, has scheduled 846 domestic port calls in Australia alone in 2024, significantly more than last year’s 575 calls.
But according to Friends of the Earth (FoE), an international coalition of environmentalists, Carnival is also “the most notorious cruise line for its environmental impact.”
The cruise line was one of the worst performers in FoE’s latest annual cruise ship report card, which assesses 18 cruise lines on environmental factors such as wastewater treatment, air pollution reduction, water quality compliance and transparency. Ranked as one.
The New South Wales Ports Authority revealed in October 2023 that cruise ship arrivals for the 2023-24 summer season are expected to increase by 16% compared to the previous year. The majority of Australian cruises begin and end their voyages in Sydney and Brisbane.
The port authority added that next season “will be the largest since the pandemic and the busiest in Australian history”.
“Cruising has made an amazing comeback,” CLIA Managing Director Joel Katz declared at the time.

“And cruise fans are returning to the sea in droves.”

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