Cruising Towards Catastrophe: Environmental Repercussions of the Cruise Industry

A year ago, I had the chance to visit my brother in Denmark while he was wrapping up his junior year abroad. My family made a point to get out to see the beautiful Norwegian fjords while we were in Scandinavia. The fjords were just as beautiful as the pictures, vast valleys dropping hundreds of feet into the beautiful deep blue water.

We ascended and descended the walls of the fjords as we drove by small towns and farms, all surrounded by vibrant green grass that rolled and fell with the terrain. The air felt crisp and clean, but the beauty was cut through occasionally by the wail of a cruise ship horn.

I didn’t really think much about the ships until we drove into a port town with a ship docked, lettings its passengers off to enjoy the authentic Norwegian town. As the ship sat stationary, it released huge plumes of dark black smoke into the air. The valley was filled with a haze and a subtle, but sharp smell. As I looked at the ship I was confused, why would it need to burn so much fuel while docked?

There wasn’t a clear answer when I saw it, and only recently has any light been shed on that moment. Recently, there has been a couple of significant stories published about the cruise industry’s flagrant disregard for the environment. Early this June, Carnival Cruises, one of the largest cruising companies, was forced to pay $20 million for dumping plastic into the Bahamas. On top of this, it was revealed that just 30 of Carnival’s massive cruise lines spew more pollutants into the air in a single day than all the cars in the United Kingdom.

It became clear that the cruising industry was unable to put in the effort to prevent further climate damage, despite and increasing need to do so. On top of that, they have gotten off virtually without punishment for causing these damages. Carnival pulled in $3 billion last year, and assuming they will do similarly in 2019, the $20 million dollar fine they were forced to pay was just a slap on the wrist. 

Nevertheless, I am not suggesting that the government should fine these companies to the point of collapse, or that we should boycott the industry altogether. Cruising is a billion-dollar industry that employs more than one million people around the world. There are more than 11 million people in the United States alone that went on cruises last year. It is a powerful industry that will not be disappearing anytime soon.

This doesn’t mean we should just accept the harm caused by the cruising industry without attempting to fix these glaring issues. Especially when there are ways to move the cruising industry in a much more environmentally conscious direction.

Particularly, the implementation of a technology called Short-Side Electricity, or SSE. SSE allows cruise ships to connect to local power grids when they dock, allowing ships to emit less particulate matter into the air of small port towns and cities. However, SSE is taxed by the European Union, while fossil fuels are not. This incentivizes cruise companies to continue using fossil fuels because SSE is more expensive. The European Union and the United States need to incentivize these companies to use SSE over fossil fuels, not the other way around. 

Still, massive implementation of SSE does not address the at-sea fuel problem. These cruise ships almost always run on “heavy fuel oil” which has notably high sulfur emissions. This fuel is a byproduct of the refining process and is significantly cheaper than cleaner fuels. Ideally, these companies would use cleaner fuel while at sea, but until heavy fuel oil becomes less cost-effective, these companies will continue to use it.

The United States and the European Union should tax these heavy fuel oils because of the damage they cause to the environment. The dirtier the fuel, the more expensive it ought to be. Companies, beyond just the cruising industry, should be paying for the damage they are causing to the environment, and therefore they will be forced to think more carefully about their environmental responsibility.

As we as individuals continue to think about our environmental impact on a day-to-day basis, cruise lines continue to contribute an unimaginable amount of pollutants to our earth. There is only so much an individual can do, from eating less red meat to recycling plastics. As long as these companies are able to pollute without any detriment to their operating costs, the environment will continue to suffer. There are about 270 cruise ships that will be operating in 2019, and if every ship operates for only one day, then they will have contributed more than nine times the pollutants that all the cars in the UK contribute in a single day. Of course, most of these ships (if not all) will be able to operate for more than a single day in 2019, which makes that figure even more staggering. These companies need to become more responsible with regards to the environment, and without some input from the United States and the European Union, there will be no change. We need to motivate these companies to use electricity when possible, use cleaner fuels, and we need to punish them more severely when they get out of line.

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