• What is cruise ship air pollution and how widespread is it?

Air Monitoring

What is cruise ship air pollution and how widespread is it?

Jun 23 2023

Air pollution silently infiltrates our environment, posing significant challenges to both human health and the ecosystems we depend on. One often overlooked source of this pollution is the burgeoning cruise ship industry. This article aims to shed light on the degree of air pollution from cruise ships and the affected areas, with a spotlight on Europe's most polluted ports

Cruise ships, the behemoths of the sea, are far from harmless to our atmosphere. Their emission footprints are colossal, spewing out harmful particulate matter and gases that taint the air in the cities they frequent. A recent report has revealed that in a single year, the cruise ships in Europe belched out more toxic sulphuric gas than one billion cars. Despite the industry's pledges to reduce their environmental impact, pollution from these vessels is on an alarming upward trend. 

Europe's 218 operational cruise ships collectively released 509 tonnes of sulphur oxides in 2022, a notable increase from the 465 tonnes in 2019. This amount surpasses the quantity produced by a billion cars or 4.4 times more than all the cars on the continent. Sulphur oxides are notorious for causing acid rain and exacerbating respiratory conditions such as asthma and emphysema. 

In addition to sulphur oxides, cruise ships emit other dangerous pollutants such as nitrogen oxides and PM2.5 particulate matter. From 2019, there has been an 18% rise in nitrous oxide emissions and a 25% increase in PM2.5 particulate matter across Europe. Both of these pollutants are associated with respiratory diseases and lung cancer. 

The detrimental impacts of cruise ship pollution extend across the continent, from Mediterranean cities to northern ports. Barcelona, known for its stunning architecture and vibrant culture, was crowned as Europe's most polluted port in terms of cruise-sourced air pollution in 2022. With 805 port calls from cruise ships and more than two million passengers disembarking in the city, the cruise ships caused three times as much air pollution as all the city's passenger cars. 

The second most polluted port was Civitavecchia, a picturesque coastal port northwest of Rome, followed by the Athenian port of Piraeus, Palma Mallorca in Spain, and Portugal's Lisbon. However, the pollution burden is not confined to Mediterranean cities. Hamburg and the UK's Southampton experienced significant rises in air pollution from 2019 to 2022. 

Southampton, one of the UK's major ports, is third in the rankings for cruise ship-generated oxides of nitrogen and particulates among European ports, according to a report by environmental campaign group Transport & Environment. This city's cruise company, Carnival, is working on reducing emissions and developing cleaner fuels. However, a worrying 14% increase in sulphur emissions over three years reveals the urgency of this issue. 

Despite the gloomy statistics, there are glimmers of hope. Venice, once Europe's most polluted cruise port, has experienced an 80% reduction in sulphur oxide levels since the banning of large cruise ships in 2021. This positive shift is an encouraging indicator that policy changes can have substantial environmental impacts. 

To combat air pollution in European cities, it's crucial for governments and authorities to take decisive action. Implementing restrictions on larger vessels, limiting ships from running their engines at port, and promoting the adoption of zero-emission fuels are some of the suggested measures. The use of shore-side electricity for docked ships could drastically reduce emissions, as it allows ships to switch off their engines. 

Companies are urged to discontinue investing in liquefied natural gas (LNG)-powered vessels, as they emit unburned methane, a greenhouse gas that is 25 times more potent than carbon dioxide over a 100-year period. Recent research suggests that the warming effect of methane slip from LNG-powered ships could negate the environmental benefits of reduced CO2 emissions. 

Moreover, there are encouraging advances in clean maritime technologies that offer realistic alternatives to traditional fuels. For instance, battery-operated vessels and ships running on hydrogen fuel cells are increasingly viable solutions. The adoption of such technologies not only reduces harmful emissions but also paves the way towards a sustainable future for the cruise industry. 

Investments in sustainable infrastructure are also vital. Ports must have the capability to provide shore power to docked ships, eliminating the need for running engines while in port. Implementing a "plug-in" policy, similar to that of California's At-Berth Regulation, could significantly cut down pollution levels in ports. 

The role of passengers cannot be overstated in the drive towards cleaner cruising. Increasing public awareness about the environmental impacts of the cruise industry can spur demand for sustainable options. This could potentially shift market dynamics, pushing cruise companies to invest more in green technologies and cleaner fuels. 

In conclusion, while the cruise ship industry poses a serious threat to air quality in European cities and beyond, solutions are within reach. It requires concerted action from governments, industry players, and consumers alike. With effective regulations, technological advancements, and public demand for sustainability, we can navigate towards a future where cruise ships contribute less to air pollution and more towards the enjoyment of the world's natural beauty. 


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IET 34.2 March 2024

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