Once again, the cruise industry finds itself under fire over its environmental performance.

The indicter this time around is German environmental group Nabu, which has accused cruise lines of showing “contempt” for the health of their customers in its latest annual report.

The paper is nothing short of damning. Ships, it claims, still emit as much particulate matter as one million cars a day, using up to 150 tonnes of fuel a day.

Among the 63 ships surveyed, not one operator was deemed to have made any effort in reducing its environmental footprint.

Industry big-hitters Costa, MSC, Cunard and Royal Caribbean were all given fail grades for reneging on prior pledges to clean up their fleets.

“Last year the sector claimed 23 ships would be operating with soot filters,” said Nabu’s head of environmental policy Dietmar Oeliger. “The truth is not a single filter is working at present.”

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“Not one operator was deemed to have made any effort in reducing its environmental footprint.”

The Cruise Lines International Association (CLIA), the world’s largest cruise industry trade association, unsurprisingly, has taken issue with the report, which was released in September.

In an official rebuttal, sent to Future Cruise, the CLIA counters that the Nabu paper “gives rise to incorrect conclusions and misunderstandings”. It has called into question the consistency of Nabu’s evaluation methods.

“It is striking that in some individual cases, the positions in the 2016 ranking vary significantly from those in the 2017 ranking, although the ship’s equipment has not changed,” says the CLIA.

“This is likely reasoned in the fact that the methodology of the ranking changes every year, making the evaluation inconsistent. The reconstruction of the ranking criteria becomes even more difficult as Nabu does not provide a legend for the ranking.”

The CLIA also disagrees with Nabu’s comparison to car emissions, which it describes as inappropriate in light of the enormous scale of some passenger ships.

“An automobile is a means of transportation for only a few people that spends most of the time parking,” it says.

“A cruise ship provides transportation, accommodation, catering, entertainment and a whole lot more and thus is comparable to a small city. Accordingly, in this case, a small city is compared to an automobile. It is quite obvious that this comparison is unreasonable.”

A license to pollute: are cruise ships getting off easy?

While Nabu could not be reached for comment for this article, fellow environmental bodies support its findings.

Brussels-based campaign group Transport and Environment (T&E) believes the report simply cements the notion that the growth of the global cruise sector in recent years has come at the expense of a cleaner environment.

“The cruise industry has been prospering in the past two decades, and its impact on human health and environment is disproportionate,” says Faig Abbasov, T&E’s aviation and shipping officer.

“Cruise ships carry and poison their passengers. The Royal Princess cruise ship can singlehandedly emit as much nitrogen oxide in only twelve hours at port as 435 passenger cars per year in Europe.”

A big part of the problem, claims Abbasov, is that ships – which spend most of their time on the high seas – are able to avoid the kind of public scrutiny afforded to the likes of the automotive sector.

As a result, cruise lines are not under any obligation to make the necessary changes.

“There is no incentive for shipping to curb pollution on a voluntary basis,” he says.

“There is no open public pressure on them. Any improvements are only the requirements of mandatory regulations, most of which the majority of ship owners have lobbied against.”

Inconsistency: environmental performance varies from line to line

Last year Friends of the Earth also produced its own scorecard on the cruise industry’s environmental footprint, the results of which were equally pejorative.

Of the 17 cruise lines assessed – comprising of 171 ships in total – only one operator, Disney, scored an A grade. The rest were all ranked at C and below.

According to Marcie Keever, the group’s oceans and vessels programme director, cruise operators are performing particularly badly when it comes to transparency.

“The industry presents itself as very green – we would dispute that,” she says.

“We started grading the lines on transparency a couple of years ago, because they had been working with us for a while. But then they started refusing to provide information, or acknowledge our research, because they don’t like the report card.”

“Some cruise lines are doing more than others to make their operations more eco-friendly.”

However, Keever admits some cruise lines are doing more than others to make their operations more eco-friendly.

She applauds Royal Caribbean’s installation of advanced wastewater treatment system onboard the majority of its 24 vessels.

Princess, too, come in for praise for the implementation of shore power connections, which allows its ships to use the local electric power system instead of their diesel engines when docked. However, she says, “they are terrible on oil pollution”.

It is precisely this kind of inconsistency that continues to vex environmental groups, says Keever.

“It’s really difficult to match up some of those good intentions with – in some cases – such bad behaviour.”

Changes in the engine room: are ships ready to embrace new technologies?

In 2020, cruise lines will be obliged by law to cap sulphur emissions on marine fuels at 0.5%. It’s the least they can do, says Abbasov.

“Cruise operators’ business is booming. They have escaped unscathed from the global financial crisis and its impact on shipping – so they can afford to reduce their emissions,” he says.

In the near future, Abbasov would like to see cruise operators give their support to a ban on the use of heavy fuel oils in the Arctic, as well as tighter air pollution standards in Europe.

Meanwhile, Keever says operators need to bring new technology to the engine room.

“If they don’t already have it, they need to be installing the most advanced sewage treatment technology,” she says. “I’d also like to see more diesel particulate filters.”

However, according to the CLIA, there are no ultra-fine particular filters currently on the market befitting of cruise ships.

“The fact is that at present, there are no filters that are fit for operational use in large ships’ engines that could filter out fine particulates from exhaust gases,” the group says.

“For this reason, the cruise industry has adopted various routes in parallel. On the one hand, work is proceeding intensively on developing filter technology; on the other hand, alternative fuels for ships’ engines are increasingly being used, such as liquefied natural gas.”

And so it goes. Amid the crossfire of accusations and counter-accusations, it’s sometimes hard to derive much clarity from either side of the debate.

Are some cruise lines guilty of paying lip service as to their green performance? Or is the research of Nabu lacking in sound science, as the CLIA claims? One thing is for sure: discussion over the impact of ships on the environment is not set to die down anytime soon.