Pollution and damage from ‘floating cities’ are creating conflict

Anger at the growing environmental and local impact of massive cruise ships has resulted in two important moves to lessen the burden that mega-ships impose on ports. Barcelona has proposed electrifying the city’s docks to reduce air pollution, while the Italian government has suggested re-routing cruise ships out of the historic centre of Venice. In June, T&E published an analysis of cruise ships that shows the problem of toxic sulphur emissions from cruise ships is far worse than for road vehicles.

Awareness of the marine and environmental pollution caused by large cruise ships has long been a big issue in countries bordering the Mediterranean, and it has grown in recent years as the size of cruise ships has increased. Over the summer, there were protests in Palma (Mallorca), Antwerp and other cities affected by mega cruise ships.

T&E’s shipping policy manager Faig Abbasov said: ‘The enormity of the problem caused by monster ships is finally starting to be realised. Luxury cruise ships are floating cities powered by some of the dirtiest fuel possible. Cities are rightly banning dirty diesel cars but they’re giving a free pass to cruise companies that spew out toxic fumes that do immeasurable harm to those both on board and on nearby shores. This is unacceptable.

T&E’s analysis of air pollution caused by luxury passenger cruise ships in European waters (also available in Spanish) shows that the brands owned by just one company, Carnival Corporation, emitted in 2017 in European seas alone 10 times more disease-causing sulphur dioxide than all of Europe’s 260+ million passenger vehicles. Spain, Italy, Greece, France and Norway are the most exposed countries to cruise ship air pollution in Europe, while the most polluted ports are Barcelona, Palma and Venice.

One of the problems T&E’s report highlighted was that air pollution in ports is exacerbated by ships keeping their engines running in order to remain functional, yet most ships run on highly polluting bunker fuels. The report recommended providing electricity in ports so cruise liners can turn off their engines while moored, and now the port authority in Barcelona is promoting a scheme to electrify the docks in order to cut emissions of SO2 and NO2. The local power grid does not have enough capacity to make the change immediately, so the plan is targeted for 2025. It has been estimated that the port is responsible for 10% of Barcelona’s NOx emissions, coming mainly from cargo and cruise ships.

As well as environmental concerns, safety has also become an issue related to cruise ships, and the impetus for action was reinvigorated in June following a collision in Venice’s lagoon between a 13-deck cruise ship and a tourist boat. Four people were injured when the MSC Opera crashed into a wharf and a tourist boat in the Giudecca canal.

Following the collision, Italy’s transport minister suggested a plan for re-routing a third of cruise ships from Venice’s historic centre. The plan, to force large ships to dock at nearby ports outside the most prestigious part of Venice, is still under discussion.

In addition, Venice’s port authority wrote to the eight other leading European ports dealing with large cruise ships, asking them to work together to make cruises ‘compatible with our structures and the environment’. The letter went to the port authorities in Barcelona, Amsterdam, Marseille, Dubrovnik, Zeebrugge, Hamburg, Palma and Málaga, and said: ‘The growing size of vessels, their environmental impact on the areas surrounding the ports and the “burden” that the increasing number of tourists are representing on the cities that are hosting our ports are creating a situation of conflict.’

That conflict has become clear in a series of protests over the summer. In Palma, a petition calling for no more than one cruise ship to dock per day – with no more than 4000 passengers disembarking – attracted 11,000 signatures and the support of 30 organisations. And in Antwerp, an anti-cruise ship petition attracted more than 15,000 signatures but was laughed at when presented to the city council. That reaction prompted a demonstration in the city’s low-emissions zone that coincided with the arrival of a large cruise ship.

Coverage of the protests against pollution from cruise ships has included numerous references to T&E’s work on air pollution from cruises.