A city inside a city: Focus on cruise ship pollution

 A city inside a city: Focus on cruise ship pollution

Cruise ship maintenance in the middle of Amsterdam

In April 2021 a group of 250 fathers from Amsterdam had enough of the inconvenience they experienced from a docked cruise ship. Since mid-March, clouds of smoke had been coming from the ship and were blowing over Amsterdam. Because the people of Amsterdam wanted to know what exactly the ship was emitting, they commissioned an investigation themselves.

The research by CE Delft showed that the daily emissions of the ship are equal to the emissions of 31,000 extra trucks that drive a full lap on the Amsterdam ring road. In addition to large amounts of nitrogen oxides, particulate matter is also released on a large scale.

Out of service, engine on

The culprit was the Marella Discovery, a ship that typically has space for 1,830 passengers and 753 crew. It was berthed in the port of Amsterdam for planned maintenance. During this maintenance the ship’s engine continued to run, because some 110 people remained on board the ship, needing power, Damen Shipyards Repairs said in a response.

It is common for the crew to stay on board, the shipyard explained. “The ship runs on the smallest engine,” said Damen director Tjeerd Schulting. According to him, mainly steam comes from the chimney, but he also says that the engines do not run as clean as they can, because they are built to service about 2,000 people on board. [source]

Smoke coming from the Marella Discovery in Amsterdam (source: NH Nieuws)

CE Delft assumed that the ship’s engines run at 10 percent of their capacity. The researchers immediately emphasize that the air pollution would be much greater if the ship did not have a high chimney and the emissions were released low to the ground and between the buildings, such as with car traffic. Also noteworthy is an estimate of the fuel costs of USD 20,000 per day! [source]

Shipping lanes from space

In a recent Copernicus Observer publication it was shown that maritime emissions are so distinctive that they can be observed from space. Especially the NOx emitted at sea is a clear indicator of maritime activities. [source]

Below is a screenshot of the windy app, that recently added NOx data to its user interface. On certain days (in this case on 30 October 2020), several lines cross the European seas, showing the most popular shipping routes. Due to the Corona pandemic at this particular date these emission trails will mostly be caused by cargo ships, but idling cruise ships in port and anchored near the coast will certainly contribute too.

Windy app showing NOx concentration levels on 30 October 2020 (source: windy.com)

The Copernicus Observer article shows that recent studies using satellite remote sensing data can even pinpoint individual ships at sea, based on their NOx emissions, combined with (again, satellite-derived) AIS tracking data.

A city inside a city

In the United Kingdom, local environmental groups have demonstrated that a single cruise ship can emit as much pollution as 700 trucks and as much particulate matter as a million cars. It has been estimated that between 40,000 and 100,000 Britons die prematurely every year as a result of emissions from the shipping and cruise industries, with major port-cities such as Southampton, Grimsby and Liverpool particularly affected. In recent years there have been several moves towards reducing the amount of pollution being emitted by ships, however, half the UK seashore lacks the legal protection of maritime pollution laws. [source]

When not using shore power, a single cruise ship docked for one day can emit as much diesel exhaust as 34,400 idling tractor-trailers, according to an independent analysis verified by the Environmental Protection Agency. While at port, a ship like the Queen Mary 2, uses as much electricity as Boston’s Logan International Airport. [source]

The largest cruise ship in the world in 2016 was the Harmony of the Seas. Owned by Royal Caribbean, this liner has two four-storey high 16-cylinder Wärtsilä engines which would, at full power, each burn 1,377 US gallons (5,213 litres) of fuel an hour, or about 66,000 gallons (250,000 litres) a day, of some of the most polluting diesel fuel in the world. [source]. In 2018 it’s record as the largest cruise ship in the world was passed to another Royal Caribbean vessel, the Symphony of the Seas. It is expected that this record will be broken by ever bigger ships soon.

Harmony of the Seas in Rotterdam in 2016 (photo: author)

Bill Hemmings, marine expert at Brussels-based Transport and Environment group said: “These ships burn as much fuel as whole towns. They use a lot more power than container ships and even when they burn low sulphur fuel, it’s 100 times worse than road diesel.”

Daniel Rieger, a transport officer at German environment group Nabu, said: “Cruise companies create a picture of being a bright, clean and environmentally friendly tourism sector. But the opposite is true. One cruise ship emits as many air pollutants as five million cars going the same distance, because these ships use heavy fuel that on land would have to be disposed of as hazardous waste.”[source]

One cruise company emits ten times more SOx than all of Europe’s cars

Carnival Corporation, the world’s largest luxury cruise operator, emitted nearly 10 times more sulphur oxide (SOX) around European coasts than did all 260 million European cars in 2017, a new analysis by sustainable transport group Transport & Environment reveals. Royal Caribbean Cruises, the world’s second largest, is second, yet four times worse than the European car fleet.

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. [source]

In absolute terms, Spain, Italy and Greece, closely followed by France and Norway, are the European countries most exposed to SOX air pollution from cruise vessels while Barcelona, Palma de Mallorca and Venice are the most impacted European port cities, followed by Civitavecchia (Rome) and Southampton.

Top cruise ship-polluted European ports – in terms of SOx (source: T&E)

The case of Southampton

Southampton, which has Britain’s second largest container port and is Europe’s busiest cruise terminal, is one of nine UK cities cited by the World Health Organisation as breaching air quality guidelines even though it has little manufacturing.

Cruise ships have huge power demands, and to power on-board facilities such as lights and water treatment plants, they run their engines 24/7 whilst moored up in ports like Southampton in Hampshire.

Dr Christelle, a GP in the Woolston area of the city, says air pollution is causing health issues and PhD student Natasha Easton, who is looking at the effect tiny particles of soot and smoke from cruise ships, says the finest particles can get “very deep in the body… and potentially have the worst health effects.” [source]

“Up to five large liners a day can be berthed in the docks at the same time, all running engines 24/7, said Chris Hinds, vice chair of the Southampton docks watchdog group WDCF. “Pollution from the port is leading to asthma and chest diseases. We are now seeing more, bigger liners but also very large bulk cargo ships.” [source]

A quick analysis on cruisemapper.com on 17 May 2021 showed four mega-ships berthed in the Port of Southampton that day, including 2021-built MSC Virtuosa (5,772 passengers), P&O Cruises Britannia (4,406 passengers), Cunard’s Queen Elizabeth (2,503 passengers) and the also brand new 2021-built P&O Cruises Iona (6,264 passengers).

Cruisemapper.com AIS-based map of 17 May 2021, showing four mega cruise ships in the Port of Southampton (source: cruisemapper.com)

During a visit on 15 May 2021, the author of this article watched MSC Virtuosa, berthed under steam, less than a mile from Southampton city centre, it’s smokestack clearly visible. The ship arrived in port several days earlier and will remain in port for several more days. At the time the photo was taken there were no passengers on board and there was no activity on or around the ship at the pandemic-struck empty cruise terminal.

MSC Virtuosa in the Port of Southampton, 15 May 2021 (photo: author)

In a much-quoted Transport & Environment study of 2019, the Port of Southampton came out as the fourth most impacted by SOx pollution, caused by 44 cruise ships spending 6,059 hours in port in 2017, emitting 27 metric tons of SOx while in port, which is 8.5 times more than the 261,000 cars registered in the city.

Emissions of SOx from cruise ships and light duty vehicles (LDVs) in top-10 cruise polluted European port cities in 2017 (source: T&E report)

Amsterdam and Rotterdam

In relation to the introduction of this article, the port of Amsterdam is ranked as the 35th most polluted city in Europe in terms of cruise ship SOx, with 52 cruise ships visiting in 2017, spending 1,880 hours in port, emitting 7 tons of SOx into the local atmosphere, which equates to 2.5 times the SOx emissions of all 235,000 cars registered in Amsterdam in that same year. The largest port of Europe, Rotterdam, scores 32nd in this list, although the percentage of cruise ships versus cargo vessels in Rotterdam is quite low. It is not unlikely that in terms of all maritime traffic Rotterdam will be in the number one spot for maritime pollution in Europe.

Towards zero emissions?

The Transport & Environment study of 2019 comes to the following conclusions:

Analysis shows that even a relatively small number of cruise ships emit vast amounts of air pollution. High emissions are due to insufficient stringency of the marine fuel quality and engine emissions standards. These are further compounded by the large size of marine engines and longer operational times of cruise vessels in ports and closer to the coasts. The evidence shows that even sulphur emission control area (SECA) ports are still exposed to high amounts of SOX and particle emissions from ships. Emissions at berth are of a special concern given that main cruise passenger terminals are very close to densely populated cities. This is despite the 0.1% standard in place for all European ports for passenger ships with port calls longer than 2 hours.

In 2020, marine sulphur standard for ships sailing in the EU EEZ outside the SECAs and outside the (berths in) European ports will improve from 1.5% to 0.5%. This will have considerable impact on ship air pollution. However, emissions from cruise ships will still remain considerably large compared to the emissions from the European passenger car fleet. Even after the 2020 standard, a handful of cruise ships will still emit about 18, 10 and 41 times more SOX than all of the passenger vehicles respectively in Spain, Italy and Greece – the top three cruise ship polluted countries in Europe. Also, 2020 standards will have no impact on emissions in ports and in SECAs, because the standard in SECAs and in European ports is more stringent than the upcoming global standard (0.1% vs. 0.5%).

Fortunately, there are technologies available to eliminate all ship emissions at berth and at sea. Notably, shore-side electricity (SSE), the possibility for ships at berth to connect to the local electricity grid and power their on-board equipment, is a proven and mature technology which can greatly reduce the local air pollution generated by docked vessels in ports. The European Alternative Fuels Infrastructure Directive requires SSE in major European ports, but only if it is cost-beneficial; as a result, there is little uptake so far by ships and ports. Two main issues are hindering the widespread adoption of SSE:

  1. A “chicken-and-egg” problem, whereby owners of the vessels do not invest in ships to make them SSE-compatible because of limited connections available in ports, while at the same time ports do not invest in SSE connections because few ships can use them.
  2. There is also a market distortion because of taxation. Shore-side electricity is taxed under the 2003 EU Energy Tax Directive, while fossil marine fuels are tax exempt. Such an uneven playing field creates a disincentive for ship owners to use SSE in ports wherever these technologies are available. This situation further disincentivises ports interested in SSE capacity

Meanwhile, Air Quality News published that In January 2019, the UK’s Department for Transport (DfT) published its first-ever maritime strategy, which details their vision of a zero-emission shipping industry by 2050.

In it, the government said they are considering introducing targets to drive down emissions of GHGs and other air pollutants from UK shipping as ‘the volume of global trade increases.’

They also say they hope to have a group of hydrogen or ammonia powered domestic vessels in operation and at least one major ‘smart port’ in the UK to have all ship-side activity zero emission (including non-road mobile machinery like cranes). [source]

New Shore Power for Southampton

On the day of publication of this article, the Port of Southampton proudly announced the future installation of its second shore power connection. With four of the world’s largest cruise liners in port today, this seems but a very small step in the right direction.

Remco Timmermans

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