Cruise ships

While cruise ships account for only a small proportion of the global shipping fleet, they have a disproportionate impact on air quality, habitats and the climate.

Cruise ships require more fuel due to the energy demand of the hotels and leisure facilities provided onboard as well as propelling the ships through the water. Cruise ships travel fast and close to the coastline, meaning that huge volumes of fuel are burned in close proximity to coastal populations. 

Most cruise ships burn heavy fuel oil (HFO), which is the dirtiest fossil fuel available. Most of these ships also do not have any diesel particulate filters or selective catalytic converters to clean the exhaust – technologies that are standard for road vehicles like trucks. Currently heavy fuel oil contains 35000ppm sulphur, which is 3,500 times more polluting that road diesel. The standard in the sulphur emissions control areas (SECAs) is 1000ppm. 

Cruise ships sailing outside the SECA but within the EU exclusive economic zone (EEZ) – up to 200 nautical miles off the coast – are subject to a more stringent 15000ppm sulphur standard. In January 2020, the global sulphur cap – outside SECAs – comes into force and the maximum sulphur content will be reduced to 5000 ppm (0.5%), still 500 times more than sulphur in road diesel. Also, cruise ships spending more than two hours at berth are already subject to the 1000ppm sulphur standard.

In 2017, luxury cruise brands owned by Carnival Corporation & PLC emitted 10 times more disease-causing sulphur oxide in European seas than all of Europe’s 260 million plus passenger vehicles. That’s according to an analysis of data of cruise ships sailing in European waters. Spain, Italy, Greece, France and Norway are the most exposed countries to cruise ship air pollution in Europe.

The analysis also reveals that even in SECAs, where the most stringent marine sulphur fuel standard is mandated, air pollution from cruise ships is still significant. In Denmark, for example, the coasts of which are entirely within SECAs, cruise ships emitted 18 times more SOx in 2017 than all of the country’s 2.5 million passenger vehicles in a year. This is a reflection of both the effectiveness of the Fuel Quality Directive for road transport fuels and the failure to implement equivalent standards for the shipping industry.

Ship SOx emissions will still remain considerably large compared to the passenger car fleet even after the introduction of the global 2020 marine sulphur cap. Also of concern are nitrogen oxide (NOX) emissions. In Denmark again, 107 cruise ships analysed emitted as much NOx in the Danish maritime economic exclusive zone (EEZ) as half the passenger cars operating in the country itself. 

Cruise ships in the Arctic

Arctic cruising is increasing fast with Svalbard in Norway experiencing 20% year-on-year growth in cruise tourism. Studies show that 86% of cruise ships visiting the arctic are burning HFO, a toxic sticky substance that if spilled would devastate the Arctic environment. The HFO Free Arctic campaign, of which T&E is a member, is calling for ships to stop using HFO when entering and transiting Arctic waters. A case study conducted on 2017 cruise ship voyage data shows that a switch to distillate for cruise ships in Arctic waters would amount to less than an extra €7 per day per passenger. Read more here.


In order to address (cruise) ship air pollution and also eliminate the climate impact of shipping, we recommend the below EU regulatory measures:

• Zero-emission berth standard for all European ports. Ships could either switch off their auxiliary engines and connect to land electricity grid, or implement something of equivalent nature.
• More stringent air pollution standards to apply to cruise ships.
• Extend the emission control areas, currently in place in the North and Baltic Seas, to the rest of the EU seas and to tighten marine SECA standard in Europe to 10ppm, equivalent to fuel used in road transport.
• Cruise ships to become first-movers in regulations to decarbonise the sector. For example, cruise ships should also be the first required to switch to zero emission propulsion in EU territorial waters and EEZ.