Fewer than 50 luxury cruise ships emit nearly 10 times more sulphur oxides, which cause acid rain and health problems, than all the 260 million cars on the EU’s roads, a new report finds. This shocking statistic highlights the urgent need for the shipping industry to clean up its act.

New research on over 200 luxury liners found that they emitted 62 kilotonnes (kt) of sulphur oxides (SOx) and 155kt of nitrogen oxides (NOx). The 47 cruise ships owned by one company, Carnival Corporation, pumped 10 times more SOx into the atmosphere than all the passenger vehicles combined, according to the study, which was released by Transport & Environment (T&E), a Brussels-based NGO.

Carnival was also recently fined $20 million for dumping sewage and pollutants directly into the sea.

One reason for this almost unimaginable discrepancy is that emissions standards for road transport are far more advanced, with road vehicles obliged to use more refined fuel and special filters. The standards for shipping are much slacker. This is bound to come as a shock for many passengers, who have the idea that travelling by ship is a clean form of transport.

Image: Roderick Eime / Flickr

Smog Med

The Mediterranean region, a popular destination for cruises, is particularly hard hit by shipping emissions. Spain, Italy, Greece and France top the league of European countries most affected by liner pollution, with Norway rounding off the top five.

“Emissions from shipping contribute significantly to poor air quality in Europe and have a huge impact on port cities and coastal areas,” says Margherita Tolotto, air and noise policy officer at the European Environmental Bureau (EEB).

Tolotto adds:

“With about half of the EU population living within 50km of the sea and considering the urgency of reducing air pollution, this issue has to be seriously and urgently tackled.”

SOx, particularly sulphur dioxide (SO2), has significant health and environmental consequences. In the air, in addition to its powerful odour, it causes irritation and coughing, while breathing becomes more difficult. It also exacerbates respiratory conditions such as asthma.

When it comes into contact with vapour in the air, sulphur dioxide produces sulphuric acid, resulting in acid rain and is an ingredient of smog, when it reacts with other chemicals in the air and sunlight.

Cleaner but not clean enough

“Luxury cruise ships are floating cities powered by some of the dirtiest fuel possible,” said Faig Abbasov, shipping policy manager at T&E.

Next year, stricter EU standards for passenger ships sailing in European waters will enter into force. However, these will not be strict enough to solve the problem, insists T&E. “There are enough mature technologies to clean up cruise ships,” notes Abbasov. “The cruise sector are apparently not willing to make the shift voluntarily, so we need governments to step in and mandate zero emission standards.”

The EEB’s Tolotto stresses that shipping as a whole, not just cruise ships, is a sector that has to do more to reduce its toxic emissions and clean the air, for the sake of public health and the environment. Among the measures that should be taken, Tolotto suggests, is to declare the Mediterranean Sea a full Emission Control Area and ports should become zero-emission zones to protect local air quality.