cruise ship

T&E Study: Europe’s busiest ports reel under resurgence of cruise ship pollution

Toxic air pollutants from cruise ships around ports are higher than pre-pandemic levels, leading to increased air pollution in Europe’s port cities, a new Transport & Environment study shows.

Illustration; Image credit MSC Cruises

The study indicates that despite introducing the UN shipping body’s sulphur cap in 2020, Europe’s 218 cruise ships emitted as much sulphur oxides (SOx) as 1 billion cars last year.

However, at the port of Venice air pollutants from cruise ships fell 80% following the city’s ban on large cruise ships, the study said.

This shows that it is possible to tackle air pollution, says T&E, which calls for greater electrification at ports in order to save lives.

“The pandemic provided some respite for port cities, but this is now well and truly over. Cruising is back and tourist hotspots like Barcelona and Athens are again choking on toxic air pollution from cruise ships. Venice has shown that tackling cruise ship pollution is possible, but bans aren’t the only way. Ports can significantly reduce pollution levels by forcing ships to plug into electricity at the port instead of running their engines, and by supporting the adoption of zero-emission fuels,” Constance Dijkstra, shipping campaigner at T&E, said.

Compared to 2019, the number of cruise ships, the time they spent around ports and the fuel they consumed all increased by around a quarter (23%-24%). This resulted in an increase of 9% in SOx emissions, 18% in NOx emissions and 25% in PM2.5 emissions, according to T&E’s data.

Barcelona was Europe’s most polluted port last year followed by Civitavecchia, a coastal port northwest of Rome and the Athenian port of Piraeus, the study further indicates. The findings show that in Barcelona, cruise ships emitted almost three times more SOx than all the cars in the city. SOx limits for cars in Europe are 100 times more stringent than those for ships.

Venice, on the other hand, improved significantly. The most cruise-polluted port in 2019 dropped to 41st last year following a ban on large cruise ships entering the port that was introduced in 2021, leading to an 80% fall in SOx emissions.

That did not stop Italy from surpassing Spain as the most cruise ship-polluted country in Europe, the NGO said. Although the Mediterranean bears the brunt of cruise ship pollution, Norway came fourth in the ranking and even had the highest cruise traffic of any country, albeit with smaller ships.

“The most polluting cruise ships operator was MSC Cruises – whose cruise ships emitted nearly as much SOx as all the passenger vehicles in Europe. Accounting for all of its subsidiaries, the Carnival group polluted the most,” T&E said. 

Many cruise operators like MSC are investing in liquified natural gas (LNG) as a cleaner alternative. So far this year, more than 40% of cruise ships ordered were LNG-powered.

“These ships are better in terms of air pollution, but they are extremely damaging from a climate perspective due to methane leaks from their engines – a potent gas over 80 times more warming than CO2. P&O’s MS Iona, for example, emitted as much methane as 10,500 cows over a year,” the NGO further added.

“Switching from oil to gas is like trading smoking for alcohol. It may help the cruise ship industry to reduce air pollution but it is terrible from a climate perspective,” Dijkstra, concluded.

Credit Extinction Rebellion

Environmentalists across Europe are calling for further bans on cruise ships until they become more environmentally friendly.

On June 11, protesters from NGO organization Extinction Rebellion and Scientist Rebellion disrupted the departure of the cruise ship Zuiderdam at Rotterdam port, blocking access to the mooring bollards with tripods and lock-ons.

This is the second time in four years that the group has targeted Zuiderdam, demanding a ban on cruise ship calls in Rotterdam to address climate and health-related emissions. They argue that the lack of scalable zero-CO2 fuel leaves cessation as the only viable option for achieving zero emissions, despite the economic implications for seafarers and the tourism industry.

“Cruise ships stand in the way of a climate-just world. Extinction Rebellion and Science Rebellion demand that Rotterdam and the Port of Rotterdam, as a progressive port city, take the lead and immediately ban all cruise ships from the city,” the organizations said.

Credit Extinction Rebellion Rotterdam

Just before the pandemic, 0.3 percent of all 10 billion vacations per year were cruise holidays, while their emissions are disproportionately high. An average cruise holiday produces about twice as much CO2 as an average holiday by air, and six times as much as a car holiday abroad, let alone a train holiday, according to a carbon footprint study Traveling Large in 2019

 Carnival Cruise Lines, the largest cruise company in the world and parent company of the ship that calls at Rotterdam on June 11, emitted ten times more sulfur around European coasts in 2017 than all cars in Europe combined, data from T&E shows.

Meanwhile, findings from NASA and the IMO have indicated that global sulphur pollution has been slashed from shipping following the Sulphur Cap implementation.

Related Article

The IMO claims that there has been an estimated 77% drop in overall Sulphur Oxide emissions from ships since the entry into effect of the “IMO 2020” regulations in January 2020. The reduction is equivalent to 8.5 million metric tonnes of sulphur oxides.