Strict regulations to curb the serious negative social and environmental impact of cruise ship traffic

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Tomorrow sees the launch, with much fanfare, of the two-day 6th International Cruise Summit in Madrid. It’s a conference during which myriad issues of the global passenger shipping industry will be discussed. Nowhere to be found, however, in the programme, among the concerns of the sector, is any mention of management of the seriously negative aspects that this sector is increasingly imposing on human life and the environment.

While ports and shipping companies congratulate themselves on record business and numbers of cruise passengers, there is growing doubt about the supposed positive effect on the local economies, as well as the associated environmental cost. Zealous and out of control tourism policies have seized places such as Barcelona, the Balearics, Gran Canaria and Tenerife and, together with the changing of traditional Mediterranean routes due to instability in certain areas, these effects have combined to provoke an untenable situation, and one which local populations are forcefully protesting against.

Protests, in fact, are cropping up all over the world, from numerous Caribbean ports to the Mediterranean zone. One example is the recent protests against the Arctic cruiser Crystal Serenity. It’s all about a worldwide pattern of untrammeled expansion which, operated by international capital, is creating huge profits for a few whilst passing the real costs onto local communities and the environment. And it seems there is very little which can curb this ambition.

According to the World Tourism Organisation, 88 per cent of the entire world cruise industry is in the hands of just three owners: Carnivale Corp & Plc, Royal Caribbean Ltd and Star Cruises. Among these it is usual that the ships are registered in fiscal paradises and that they sail under a flag of convenience to evade taxes, labour and environmental laws.

One of the chief problems which affects the environment and local communities is the amount of exhaust gases these mega-cruise ships emit. A ‘medium-sized’ cruise ship (of 2-3,000 passengers) consumes the same amount of fuel as around 12,000 motor vehicles, but added to that, its heavy fuel oil is around a hundred times more toxic than the diesel which motor vehicles use; it can contain up to 3,500 times more sulphur. This fuel is banned on land, where it’s considered a dangerous substance which needs prohibitively high-cost treatments before it can be deployed. Its use is allowed, however, for maritime transport because of the weak international regulations governing this sector. Meanwhile shipping, along with the aviation sector, were exempt from this year’s COP21 Paris Climate agreement.

Ecologists in Action warns that, if the growth of this industry continues as now, emissions of CH4, CO, CO2 and NOx will increase by four times up till 2050 when we will reach approximately 70 million tonnes of CO2 and up to 1.3 millions of tonnes of NOx. The consequences for human life and the climate are potentially devastating.

This toxic exhaust multiplies considerably when talking of larger cruisers, those which can carry from 6,000 to 10,000 passengers and crew, such as the cruise ship Harmony of the Seas. The shipping company which owns this cruiser, Royal Caribbean, have announced that they have incorporated technological advances to improve the energy efficiency of their ship. But the truth is, this giant vessel consumes 35 per cent more than the old-style cruise ships. They use some 2,500,000 litres of heavy fuel oil a day which, according to Friends of the Earth, is the equivalent to that consumed by more than 77,000 households in a country such as the USA. The environmental NGO NABU, which monitors emissions, and produces an annual ranking 2016 of cruise ships, says that without exception, all cruise ships use heavy fuel oil while 80 per cent have absolutely no system of dealing with (cleaning up) exhaust fumes.

It’s important to remember that cruise ships motor close to the coast, so their emissions have a greater impact on local communities and coastal/marine ecosystems than ships which travel further out at sea. The situation is added to when these vessels dock in a port close to the city. Usually, within their passenger terminals close to the city, the ships keep the engines on while docked in order to keep their systems running onboard. This is the case in Barcelona, a city which as it is, frequently infringes its minimum legal clean air values, thus systemically risking its population’s health.

For all of the above reasons, Ecologists in Action is calling for strict laws to govern the cruise sector and maritime transport in general – such as those which exist in ports in northern Europe which impose a limitation on ships burning heavy fuel oil in coastal zones. In the Baltic Sea, the North Sea and the English Channel, Sulphur Emission Control Areas (SECA) have been established which, since January 2015, have imposed strict controls on sulphur-containing fuels used by vessels (the maximum allowed is 0.1 per cent of contained sulphur, in contrast to the 3.5 per cent allowed in Mediterranean ports). In just one year since the application of this law, these ports have seen pollution reduced by more than 50 per cent. The Baltic ports are also working towards limiting NOx gases – mirroring restrictions which are already in place in the USA and Canada. Similarly, Ecologists in Action is calling for a law which obliges vessels to plug into the local mains grid for electrification while in port, something which is already compulsory in more than ten European locations.

As well as demanding a reduction in pollution by shipping, Ecologists calls for the local authorities to administer the laws and restrictions on cruise ships, rather than the state-run port authorities, given that shipping activity is supposed to be of benefit for the city concerned.

It’s important to remember that most European ports are in cities, as is the case of Rotterdam, the largest port in Europe. As well as the regulation of economic and fiscal concerns, it is equally important to consider environmental issues including marine pollution, the limitation of the destruction of coastal fauna and flora and the management of toxic residues, as well as establishing limits over the number, size and cruise ships operating in accordance with whether their port city destination can cope with their presence.

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