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Maritime passenger traffic: balancing growth and preservation of the marine environment


The growth in passengers travelling by sea requires a reduced carbon footprint on the marine environment and the environment in general. Under pressure from more stringent international and European standards, technologies are evolving, as is behaviour, but there is still much to do.



Departure of cruise ship from the port of Palermo (photo F.Dubessy)
Departure of cruise ship from the port of Palermo (photo F.Dubessy)

Every year, ferries and cruise ships carry over 400 million passengers and dock in the

1,200 ports of the 22 European Union countries with a coastline (source ESPO , European Sea Ports Organisation). This traffic is increasing. Despite the crisis, the cruise industry posted a 7.1% increase in 2011, bringing to 5.6 million, the number of passengers boarding from a European port (source ECC, European Cruise Council . If the dramatic sinking of the Costa Concordia off the Italian island of Giglio has had little effect on passenger numbers, it highlights the safety and impact issues these seafaring giants have on the environment.

Over and above this otherwise exceptional situation, it’s the daily transport of passengers that leaves its mark on the marine ecosystem. The IMO (International Maritime Organisation) lays down the rules to be followed in this matter. In particular the MARPOL Convention and its annexes on the prevention of pollution, whether oil spills, sewage, waste or atmospheric emissions, backs up this legislation. Also included are the standards set by the guidelines adopted by the European Union.


Reducing sulphur, nitrogen and carbon emissions

The Greek islands must rise to the challenge of conservation while accommodating more and more tourists (photo F.Dubessy)
The Greek islands must rise to the challenge of conservation while accommodating more and more tourists (photo F.Dubessy)

So, the Sulphur Directive, the implementation in Community law of Annex VI of the MARPOL Convention, has created a wave of panic among European ship owners these last few months. The terms provide for passenger ships to reduce, by 1st January 2015, sulphur emission rates from 1% to 0.1% for the English Channel, the North Sea and the Baltic, which are regarded as specific zones, and from 3.5 to 0.5% in 2020 for the other zones, the Atlantic and Mediterranean.

This means that if they do not succeed in finding sulphur-free fuels, they must abandon fuel oil for gas oil, which is 40% more expensive. Hence the threat by some ship owners to lay up a number of ferries if adjustments to the measures (specified in the MARPOL Annex) are not allowed enough time to discover acceptable solutions. A compromise, allowing these adjustments, was reached with Brussels in June 2012.

This issue is also on the agenda of the cruise lines. In its annual report for 2011/2012, the ECC recognises the efforts of shipyards to implement energy efficiency solutions to reduce fuel consumption on new ships. Other lines of thought are moving towards using liquefied natural gas (LNG), which is considered compatible and has a greater respect for the environment. However, as pointed out by Bastian Tesching of Aida Cruises in the annual ECC report, this does pose the dual problem of storage on boats of much larger cylindrical tanks, and getting supplies in ports, which are currently poorly equipped for this, especially in southern Europe.


Regarding nitrogen oxide emissions (NOx), new devices such as “scrubbers” (gas-cleaning systems that work with salt water) are already taking place on some ships. A €1 million investment translates into a 90% reduction in NOx emissions (Plan Bleu 2011 report, “Cruising and Yachting in the Mediterranean”).


Improving waste treatment

A boat carrying 5,000 people creates an average 28 tonnes of waste per day (source ECC). What happens to this solid waste and sewage? A portion (between 75 and 85% of the waste) is eliminated on board in incineration plants, as well as selective sorting which expands to increase recycling (with a rate of at least 60%, according to the environmental assessments published by the shipping companies as mentioned by Plan Bleu in its report “Cruising and Yachting in the Mediterranean”).

While significant investments have been made – equipment to treat waste on the newest boats represents an average investment of €10 million per unit (source ECC) – there is still much progress to be made. Incineration processes are still sources of air pollution and sewage can be discharged into the sea without any treatment provided it is carried out from a certain distance, at least three miles offshore.

The solution requires better cooperation between ship owners and port authorities with improved waste treatment facilities available ashore. Seaports have an obligation under the European Directive of 27
th November 2000, to adopt a plan to accept and process operational waste from ships. “These requirements are not always met”, says ECC Vice-President Pierfrancesco Vago, “in particular in the ports of southern Europe”.

Version française


Christiane Navas


Saturday, September 29th 2012



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