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Europe’s cruise ships are emitting more sulphur than one billion cars

A detailed study by a European activist organisation says LNG-powered ships could be just as bad for the environment as heavy fuels.

A new report has uncovered the sulphur emissions rate of Europe's cruise ships.

Pollution levels at many of Europe’s busiest ports have returned to pre-pandemic levels, according to a new study, with the continent’s cruise ships emitting four times more sulphur than the continent’s 291 million cars.

According to a new report entitled ‘The Return of the Cruise’, by Brussels-based activist group, The European Federation for Transport and Environment, the biggest individual culprit by brand was MSC Cruises which emitted almost as much sulphur as all of Europe’s cars by itself.

On the scale of parent organisations, Carnival Corporation was the worst offender, with its multiple brands and 63 ships responsible for 43 per cent more emissions.

In terms of individual ports, the most polluted cities when compared against cars were Barcelona, Civitavecchia (Rome) and Piraeus (Athens), with Hamburg and Southampton completing the Top 5.

Conversely, the report found a significant improvement in sulphur pollution levels had been recorded in Venice, which banned large cruise ships from entering its lagoon in 2021. The Italian city dropped from seventh in 2019 to 41st in the latest modelling based on an 80 per cent reduction in sulphur oxide emissions.

Barcelona was found to be the city suffering most from sulphur pollution.

The study was based on the movements of 214 cruise ships and compared against 173 ships included in the same study in 2019, prior to the pandemic, with only ships registered at more than 5,000 GRT factored.

The report also acknowledged the presence of Sulphur Emission Control Areas (SECAs) in all European ports along with North America, China, South Korea and Australia, which all mandate a 0.1 per cent fuel sulphur content, compared to the 0.5 per cent limit outside these areas.

Liquefied Natural Gas (LNG), which the cruise industry trumpets as the future of fuel, was targeted in the report as having the potential to be worse than traditional and heavy oil-based fossil fuels due to the prospect of methane leakage.

The report noted that LNG, which is primarily composed of methane, was indeed a cleaner burning fuel in terms of air quality that will lower air pollution levels by up to 20%, with more than 40% of the existing future cruise ship pipeline to be equipped with dual-fuel engines.

However, the likelihood of methane slip – which is when unburned methane escapes into the atmosphere through an incomplete combustion cycle – may result in worst environmental consequences as methane is 80 times more climate warming than carbon dioxide even if renewal biomethane or e-methane was used instead.

Some cruise lines in Europe emit more sulphur than all of Europe's cars.

The European Commission says LNG fuel engines release an average of 3.1 per cent uncombusted LNG into the atmosphere, albeit under controlled conditions, not real-world measurements, however a study on a trans-Atlantic ship movement found the methane slip level was a much higher 8.1 per cent.

The figure aims to raise awareness of the problems associated with methane slip and lead to greater levels of investment into containing the emission and improving the efficiency of LNG.

One recommendation in the report calls for LNG infrastructure to be discontinued and replaced with greater investment into hydrogen fuel cells and battery development, with hydrogen bunkering at cruise terminals, with methane monitoring systems to be installed in ships already in service.

Reports from CLIA Global reiterate an existing commitment to achieving net-zero emissions in cruise operations by 2050 through solutions such as expediting the rollout of shoreside power facilities and ensuring as many ships as possible can connect either as a design standard or after retrofitting.

LNG has been identified by CLIA as a transitional fuel, but even it has its drawbacks.

In response to this story, a spokesperson for CLIA said the global cruise fleet, which totals around 300 ships, was one of the most technologically advanced and energy efficient in history.

"The cruise industry is strongly committed to continually improving its sustainability efforts, and cruise lines are making significant investments to develop new environmental technologies, sustainable marine fuels and to equip cruise ships to connect to shoreside electricity, removing emissions while at berth," the statement said.

"The ships launching this year are indicative of the advancements cruise is making in moving away from a single-fuel industry towards multiple-fuel capabilities.

"As part of this transformation, cruise lines are pursuing a variety of new and more sustainable alternative energy sources, including preparing their ships for electric batteries, advanced biofuels, hydrogen fuel cells, and synthetic fuels.

"Today, already more than 80 ships in the CLIA-member cruise line fleet, representing 40% of global capacity, are equipped with onshore power connections and another 83 ships are planned for retrofits. It is anticipated that around 85% of cruise ships coming online between now and 2028 will be equipped with the ability to connect to shoreside electricity."

The report urges greater investment and adoption in hydrogen fuel cell propulsion.

Recently, MSC Cruises and its luxury brand Explora Journeys announced it would commit to connecting to shore power in 15 more European ports as infrastructure was developed and the ability to connect to reliable land-based electricity became available.

Further, the European Union is making it compulsory by 2030 for most ports to develop sufficient shoreside power infrastructure to handle all ships using the port on a daily basis as well as requiring compatible cruise ships to utilise them when in port. However, this regulation will only apply to ships in berth, not at anchor.

Cruise lines will also be incentivised further to adopt cleaner fuels or phase out older ships through Europe’s Emissions Trading Scheme, which from 2024 will apply to shipping and may otherwise force cruise operators to pay for their climate impact.

Click here to download the full report.

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Written by: Matt Lennon
Published: 10 July 2023

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