• Quinn Cook

Ocean Cruises Bring Climate Disaster

It shouldn’t be a secret that the global tourism industry, filled with unsustainable practices and locations, continues to leave a devastating carbon and environmental footprint on the earth, and heavily contributes to climate change. Among the worst of this industry’s facets though is the sub-industry of ocean cruise vacations.



The fact that both cruise companies and ships wreak havoc on the earth is not disputed. Whether they’re docked or cruising, these ships are massive polluters and resource burners. And so while this post will touch upon the main principles of ocean cruise impacts, it won’t include the entirety of the problem because like many climate issues it’s incredibly complex. So I urge you to continue to do your own research about how this industry is greatly accelerating our climate crisis.



The first way ocean cruises are so significantly destructive is their release of deadly emissions at greatly accelerated and concentrated levels, both when docked and at sea. These colossal floating resorts are their own cities in motion, and thus take unimaginable power, energy, and resources to support. This means using incredibly unnecessary amounts of fossil fuels to power ships and provide them the resources needed to sustain life not only in motion, but at sea. A continuous business supporting this type of waste and use is unrealistic in any standard of sustainability.




According to a study(1) from the group Transport and Energy, cruise ship corporation Carnival alone emitted almost 10 times more sulfur oxide throughout Europe than all the 260 million European cars combined in 2017. These kinds of emissions are inconceivably harmful and have horrific greenhouse gas effects, but also other environmental ones as well. Cruise ship engines commonly possess very high sulfur contents, which means they release lots of sulfuric acid- the main component of acid rain- which can lead to an increased occurrence of the phenomenon.



Additionally, even when docked, ships are still massive emitters. A recent study(2) verified by the EPA found that when not using shore power (a plug-in system), a single cruise ship docked for a single day can emit as much diesel exhaust as 34,400 idling tractor-trailers. And according to researchers from the International Council on Clean Transportation, a non profit research group, even the most efficient cruise ships emit 3-4 times more per passenger mile than jets.



All of the emissions and resource strain push passengers' carbon footprints through the roof. Pacific Standard(3) reports that passengers' carbon footprint’s while at sea are three times higher than while on land, and vacationing is hardly an excuse to triple this mark.


And from a global climate change perspective cruises are equally harmful. Their emissions of course directly contribute to global warming, and even more specifically harm the oceans which are one of the biggest vulnerabilities within our climate. The oceans warming, rising, and changing in composition greatly threatens not only marine ecosystems, but also any sense of life and climate stability otherwise as the oceans are massive regulators and stabilizers of the Earth’s climate.



And aside from pure resource and energy use and emissions, these companies are also infamous for purposely, and illegally, dumping waste and leaking chemicals into the oceans at the environment’s direct expense. Disgustingly cruises abuse the oceans they use themselves with their great contribution to polluted waters and loss of marine life. Pacific Standard also notes that the Environmental group Friends of the Earth reports(4) cruise ships generate about 15 gallons of hazardous chemical waste every day, and that, in a year, 100 million gallons of petroleum products from cruise ships seep into our oceans.



Companies have been caught many times filling waters with sewage, plastic waste, and chemical, oil and other toxic fluids. Princess Cruises, part of the parent company Carnival, was caught with 100 plus instances of illegally discharging oil, garbage, and other toxic substances. Not only that, but employees were actively finding ways to disguise and cover up the crimes. In 2016, they were indicted on seven felony charges and ordered to pay a $40 million dollar fine.


But Carnival was not nearly done yet, and in 2019 was found again to be violating their 2016 agreement and dumping plastic, falsifying records, and otherwise breaking rules like sending their own teams ahead of inspections to engage in cover ups. They were made to pay another $20 million in fines. Unfortunately, to a giant corporation worth approximately $35 billion dollars like Carnival is, these fines are hardly a slap on the wrist. And while Carnivals series of crimes are reprehensible, this kind of incident doesn’t stand alone in the cruise industry.


All this illegal discharge is obviously devastating to the oceans and marine life. The mass of plastics, the corruption of waters surrounding ecosystems, the bleaching of corals and reefs, all symptoms of polluted waters. As well, the noise of the ships and their traffic contribute to even more marine life harm and death.



Additionally, even when companies try to improve their environmental impact they often fail. Popular filtering technology used on ships to deal with the sulfur oxide problem, called scrubbing tech, is increasingly being banned at ports due to its high level of waste water discharge.


Now cruises do look better and worse in different ports of the world. All throughout Europe, much of east Asia, and even our continental west coast, the plug in port system is widely used. Unfortunately, the east coast is infamously terrible for not using this system which is all the more reason that as an east coast American cruises are a complete no go. But the plug in system only accounts for emissions while docked, which are hardly the problem alone.



So while tech is advancing and slowly being adopted by this industry, it currently still remains a major polluter, environmental destructor, and often climate regulation resistor. This article is not supposed to be about shaming those who have taken cruises, or those who may love and frequent them, but about educating people about their actions. Currently, ocean cruises are not a behavior the world can afford. At some point humans need to start putting sustainability before some enjoyments, and if that means sacrifices like not going on that cruise, which it does right now, then it does. If we want a collective future for us and our earth, we need to take action now.



The world depends on consumers patronizing industries that don’t accelerate our current crisis. With the current pandemic, there is of course much uncertainty within the cruise industry. Hopefully it can come back focused on sustainability, not regaining lost dirty profits, but for now in the name of sustainability consumers need to stay on land and try another option.



Citations/Studies listed here:

  1. Transport/Environment Study on Euro Cars

  2. Study Comparing Cruise Emissions to Tractor Emissions

  3. Carbon Footprint Stat/Article

  4. Friends of Earth Article

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