To critics of the cruise industry it was more evidence of a poor environmental track record, one that has led some to argue that should cruise lines be revived after the coronavirus pandemic, it should only be under strict new environmental regulations.
According to a 2009 study on the environmental impact of cruise ships by Dr Ross Klein, a sociologist from the University of Newfoundland, on the average cruise ship, 401g of CO2 – a leading cause of global warming – is emitted per passenger per kilometre. “This is 36 times greater than the carbon footprint of a Eurostar passenger and more than three times that of someone travelling on a standard Boeing 747 or a passenger ferry,” he writes in his report.
One of the reasons for the high environmental impact is the industry’s use of cheap but dirty heavy fuel oil to run its ships. Heavy fuel oil is a byproduct of the refining process that is so dirty it is illegal to burn on land in most jurisdictions. According to the German environmental group NABU, a mid-size cruise ship’s engine can use 150 tonnes of fuel each day, which would emit as much particulate pollution as 1 million cars.
The US banned its use without scrubbers to clean the exhaust within 200 nautical miles of the coast years ago, and cruise ships have been required to burn low-sulphur fuel for part of the time they are at berth in Sydney Harbour since late 2015. Since January this year new international regulations have mandated the use of cleaner fuel, but critics say emissions of dangerous nitrogen oxides continue.
Either way Klein notes that the problem runs deeper. Unlike other vessels at sea, cruise ships carry thousands of people rather than just cargo. “A moderate-sized cruise ship on a one-week voyage with 2200 passengers and 800 crew members is estimated to generate up to 210,000 gallons [794,900 litres] of human sewage (this would fill approximately 10 backyard swimming pools), 1 million gallons (the equivalent of 40 more swimming pools) of gray water (water from sinks, baths, showers, laundry, and galleys), eight tonnes of garbage (the weight of a school bus), more than 130 gallons of hazardous waste, and 25,000 gallons of oily bilge water.”
Last month when the American government began outlining its economic stimulus packages, a group of Democratic senators argued that the airline and cruise industry should only receive support in return for environmental improvements. “Requiring reductions in carbon pollution from foreign-flagged cruise ships, as well as reductions in other air pollutants and increased penalties for illegal dumping, would result in cleaner air and a healthier ocean,” they wrote in a letter to Congress.
Perhaps even more worrying for the industry, US President Donald Trump suggested in his statement regarding a $US2 trillion stimulus package that it would be targeted at companies, “created or organised in the United States or under the laws of the US and has significant operations in and a majority of its employees based in the US”.
This was significant because many of the world’s largest cruise companies are infamously incorporated in tax havens rather than the countries where their customers live.
This point was raised by NSW Police Commissioner Mick Fuller when he announced a criminal investigation into whether Ruby Princess officers had lied about the extent of the spread of COVID-19 on board. “They don’t pay taxes in Australia, they don’t park their boats in Australia, their primary flags are often in the Caribbean. [It’s] time to go home,” he said.
Jamie Parker, NSW Greens MP for Balmain, home to the White Bay Cruise Terminal, says the cruise industry should be better regulated when it is revived.
For years his constituents have campaigned against the emissions and noise of cruise liners. The problem did not exist when the port was used for container ships, says Parker, because those ships sit lower in the water and have less impact on local neighbourhoods.
Katrina Horrobin, a member of the group Stop Cruise Ship Pollution, says that Carnival has fought residents and obstructed every solution proposed – from the restrictions on heavy fuel oil to the introduction of shore power that would allow ships to hook up to the grid and turn their engines off while in port. “We estimate that it would cost them between half a million and $2 million dollars to retrofit their ships but they don’t want to do it,” she says.
Similar campaigns have been run by portside residents in Melbourne and Tasmania.
Since 2001, 21 overseas ports have introduced shore power. Three years ago the NSW government rejected a proposal to install the technology in Sydney due to the $36 million cost, though last month it signalled it will revisit the proposal.
A spokesman for Carnival Australia said the company had objected to the selection of White Bay when it was first proposed by the government, “but had since committed to working cooperatively to make the new facility a success and by and large it has been”.
“This has included embracing operating procedures to minimise impact on the local community and to protect the environment.”
Despite the concerns of environmentalists and residents around the world, despite even the complete global shutdown of the industry, the indications are that cruising remains popular. On Thursday The Los Angeles Times reported that bookings for 2021 are up 40 per cent compared with 2019 on the online cruise marketplace CruiseCompete.com, while the Swiss bank UBS found bookings for next year had increased on last year’s numbers, with many using credits for cruises cancelled due to coronavirus.
Nick O’Malley is National Environment and Climate Editor for The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age. He is also a senior writer and a former US correspondent.