Under the radar: How the cruise industry threatens the Arctic

Cruise ships play an outsized role in burning heavy fuel oil, the dirtiest fossil fuel on the planet — and one that can cause extreme damage to the marine environment during an oil spill.

Arctic Cruise

The global shipping industry has cruised under the radar for decades. Ships come and go, delivering the products of everyday life. The cruise ship sector of this global shipping industry is growing, though not as much as the industry would like. Meanwhile, the number of ocean-going ships increased fourfold between 1992 and 2012 — getting simultaneously noisier, bigger, and difficult to slow down.  

On the banks of the Sarawak River in Kuching, Malaysia, more than 600 of the world’s leading marine conservation experts and policymakers gathered recently to discuss these issues and more during the 5th annual International Marine Conservation Congress. Stand.earth, World Wildlife Foundation Canada, Ocean Conservancy, and Heiltsuk Nation spoke at the conference to bring to the surface this industry that has sailed under the radar and outside public discussions on marine protection for far too long — the global shipping industry.

From cruise ships to container ships to fishing vessels, the global shipping industry significantly impacts the ecosystems in which it operates.

In pristine areas like coastal British Columbia or the Arctic, ship discharges threaten the marine ecosystem, as well as the coastal and indigenous communities that depend upon a clean ocean. Container ships and tankers can injure, and even kill, marine mammals. Accidental ship discharges and vessel accidents can lead to toxic oil spills. And cruise ships specifically have massive impacts to human health in ports worldwide, thanks to localized air pollution.

What’s worse, most ships burn one of the dirtiest fossil fuels available — heavy fuel oil. This bottom-of-the-barrel, residual waste oil is what’s left over after other petroleum products like gasoline are refined from crude oil. It contains concentrated levels of sulfur, heavy metals, and other contaminants. Heavy fuel oil is so dirty that on land it’s classified as hazardous waste. Unfortunately, ships can buy this low quality oil at rock-bottom prices — and they do. And it’s perfectly legal for them to burn heavy fuel oil in international waters.

Cruise ships – huge behemoths more akin to a floating city than a ship — play an outsized role in burning heavy fuel oil. On average, these ships guzzle 150 tons of heavy fuel oil every single day. Cruise ships also put out 10 tons of soot (or black carbon) per ship each year — nearly three times the amount of soot as container ships. 

The pollution from these behemoths — including the fine and ultrafine particulate matter that is known to be incredibly damaging to human health — is equal to 1 million cars idling at once. 
And therein lies the problem.

What isn’t being paid for by the global shipping industry in costs for cleaner fuel is paid for in human health and environmental consequences. Ship exhaust has been linked to hundreds of thousands of premature deaths annually. These emissions contain known carcinogens and can cause heart and lung disease. Children living in port communities have higher rates of asthma and school absenteeism as a result. 

In fragile ecosystems like the Arctic, heavy fuel oil use poses an even greater threat. The thick, sludge-like consistency and the high concentrations of contaminants are extremely damaging to the marine environment in the event of  an oil spill. In this polar region — with its harsh, unpredictable weather and remote, unchartered waters — such a spill would be impossible to clean up.

And because heavy fuel oil persists much longer in the environment than other fuels, the damage a major heavy fuel oil spill would inflict would be long-lasting and devastating.

Worse, when the soot released from burning heavy fuel oil settles on sea ice, it darkens the surface. This decreases the ability of sea ice to reflect sunlight, which accelerates melting. That amplifies the effects of climate change in this fragile and threatened polar region, which is already experiencing its impacts at twice the rate of other regions.

Carnival Corporation — the largest company in the cruise ship sector with 10 subsidiary brands — is particularly problematic. On the surface, Carnival says sustainability is one of its core values. Its actions expose this statement as nothing more than rhetoric dressed in superficiality.

A recently published analysis found that during the year studied, Carnival Corporation was responsible the largest amount of heavy fuel oil in the Arctic — over 11,000 tons. Carnival carried nearly three times more of this toxic fuel in this delicate region than its closest competitor.

Carnival is actively installing sulfur dioxide scrubbers on its ships, which sounds good in theory. But these scrubbers are what allows the world’s largest cruise company to keep burning the dirtiest fuel available after more stringent international fuel regulations go into effect in 2020. Scrubbers also have their own issues with polluting discharges, and they do nothing to address in any significant way the other pollutants that Carnival’s ships emit.  

Cruise Lines International Association (CLIA) is the trade organization that represents the industry at the International Maritime Organization, an intergovernmental organization that develops a regulatory framework for the global shipping industry. Recently, CLIA said it supports banning ships from using and carrying high sulfur fuel after 2020. Like Carnival, the largest member of this trade organization, this statement appears to be more for show than anything. The statement made very clear that CLIA only supports such action if sulfur dioxide scrubbers are allowed. Since the cruise industry is the faction of the shipping sector most zealously installing scrubbers, what CLIA is saying it that it supports a policy on banning heavy fuel oil as long as the policy has minimal impact on its members.

Carnival can and should live its values. Instead of scrambling to ensure it can continue burning heavy fuel oil by installing scrubbers, Carnival should end its use of heavy fuel immediately and step up as industry leader in developing clean shipping technology.

For the planet. For the Arctic. And for the people living in the ports Carnival frequents most.

Sign the petition calling on Carnival to end its use of heavy fuel oil at cleanupcarnival.com

Kendra Ulrich is the Senior Shipping Campaigner at Stand.earth. She recently presented at a panel titled “Under the Radar” during the 5th International Marine Conservation Congress which took place from June 24-29, 2018 in Malaysia.