The authors of a critical report that analyses the impact of cruise ships on public health and the environment have launched a withering attack on the industry and the organisation that regulates it.
Researchers at Naturschutzbund Deutschland (NABU), the German NGO behind the report, claim European cruise ships are belching out 3,500 times more sulphur dioxide than land-based vehicles, thus contributing to a range of issues including climate change, air pollution and lung problems.
“The shipping sector is lagging far behind what’s going on on land [in terms of regulating emissions],” said Daniel Rieger, a researcher at NABU. “Air pollution from ships is damaging global climate and human health.”
Rieger claims the International Maritime Organisation (IMO), which regulates shipping, could be doing more to tackle pollution caused by the cruise industry.
In most countries, he says, the maximum permitted sulphur emissions for land-based vehicles is capped at 10 parts per million (0.001 per cent); however, thanks to the IMO, the cruise industry has a more lenient limit of 3.5 per cent, which allows operators to use “cheap and dirty” heavy fuel oil.
“[The IMO] works so slow that we have to wait at least 10 or 20 years more until effective regulation will be in place,” said Rieger.
That’s not strictly true: last month the IMO announced new legislation that will slash sulphur emissions for vessels from 3.5 per cent to 0.5 per cent, though it won’t come into effect until 2020.
“Ships are subject to quite clear, quite stringent requirements with regards to their emissions and last month these were tightened still further,” said Lee Adamson, a spokesperson for the IMO.
“I have seen various comparisons done with different transport modes and what sometimes gets overlooked is that a ship is a very big unit and that it performs a very large amount of what you might call transport work.”
NABU believes the new IMO regulation does not go far enough and that cruise lines fall back on scrubbing technology to “clean” exhaust gasses rather than replace heavy fuel oil.
“What a scrubber does, technically, is spray some water on the exhaust,” explained Rieger. “The fallout is then washed into the open sea. Scrubbers just shift the problem from the air to the ocean, which, from an environmental perspective, is not the proper solution.”
NABU claims that while a handful of European cruise lines are going beyond what is legally required of them, the majority are not.
“Some are starting to take action voluntarily,” said Rieger, who helped compile a ranking system for European cruise ships. “We wanted to highlight the good guys.”
NABU rated European cruise vessels out of four, awarding a point for every measure the cruise line was taking to mitigate the ship’s impact on the environmental.
The vessels were assessed on the type of fuel they use, whether they are fitted with catalysts and particulate filters and whether they use alternative power sources when in ports. Half a point was awarded for ships that switched to cleaner fuels in Arctic waters.
The AIDAprima, flagship of AIDA Cruises, came out on top with a score of three. “It’s going beyond what is required legally,” said Rieger.
However, of the 55 European vessels assessed by NABU, 44 scored zero, including three ships operated by Royal Caribbean International.
Responding to the report, the cruise line’s managing director for UK and Ireland, Stuart Leven, told Telegraph Travel: “Royal Caribbean’s commitment to best environmental practices is fundamental to how we do business.
“We meet or exceed all environmental laws and regulations and our continuous improvement in performance is evidence of our seriousness in this area.”
Last month Royal Caribbean announced a new class of ship that will be powered by liquefied natural gas and employ fuel cell technology, which the company claims will usher in a new era of environmentally friendly cruising.
“These ships are set to be delivered in 2022 and 2024 and their green technologies will help our steady progress on increased energy efficiency and reduced emissions that will see us continue to raise the bar on environmental stewardship now and in years to come,” said Leven.
TUI Group told Telegraph Travel that it was working to improve the environmental friendliness of its cruise ships.
“These efforts include substantial investments in technology to minimize emissions for every new ship of our fleet,” said a spokesperson.
“The NABU ranking focuses on a very narrow set of technical solutions for reducing emissions. However, there are more ways to improve the environmental impact of cruise ships. The ranking does not reflect these manifold efforts.”
NABU admits its ranking system is simplistic, but maintains that it gives holidaymakers an opportunity to make informed decisions about what cruise ships they should take.
“If you would like to go on a cruise vacation and you’re interested in the environment and health you should have the opportunity to choose an operator that is taking care of this,” said Rieger.