This post is my contribution to Blog Action Day, which this year is focusing on climate change.
We’ve heard it all before. Air travel is evil. If your vacation involves a plane then you are burning the planet.
While this may be somewhat of an exaggeration, it’s quite true that aviation is one of the fastest growing contributors to climate change. There are also dozens of schemes where you can buy carbon credits to “offset” your flights – though the science and oversight behind this is questionable. Aviation only accounts for 1.6% of global greenhouse emissions right now, but would become the biggest emitter in the developed world if it’s not reined in. There is some sign of action – airlines, aircraft companies and airports recently presented a plan to the United Nations to slash emissions to half 2005 levels by 2050. Even so, we need to be flying less, not more.
Yet there is form of travel that does not attract nearly as much flak – but should. Cruising. Think it’s a green alternative to air travel? Think again. It’s worse!
Cruising is a big business and a growing one. At the start of this year, the cruise sector was predicted to be the only part of the US travel industry to grow in 2009, despite the recession. [Update: And, apparently October is National Cruise Vacation Month in the US, so my post is more timely than I thought!].
But did you know that these floating cities are just about one of the most polluting and socially destructive ways you can travel? In fact, when it comes to carbon emissions, cruising is worse than air travel. Much worse. A cruise liner crossing the Atlantic Ocean from Europe to North America produces far more greenhouse emissions per passenger mile than an aeroplane making the same journey. Seven times as much, according to some calculations. And that’s before you even count any flights to and from the ports of embarkation and disembarkation.
And the air pollution is just the start of it. The mind really starts to boggle when you look at how much crap the cruise ship is spewing into the ocean at the same time. Here’s what Friends of the Earth, which is campaigning for better US government regulation of the cruise industry, has to say about the current situation:
“Cruise ships currently operate largely unregulated. They release hundreds of thousands of gallons of raw sewage and polluted water (containing bacteria, metals, viruses and nutrients) into our oceans and coastal waters as close as three nautical miles from shore. According to EPA’s Cruise Ship Discharge Assessment Report, sewage generation rates for large cruise ships can range as high as 74,000 gallons per day, per vessel. These discharges occur near shellfish beds, public beaches, and sensitive pristine marine ecosystems. Like floating cities, cruise ships carry thousands of passengers at any given time and are growing both in average ship size (increasing by approximately 90 feet every five years) and demand.”
Friends of the Earth has put together a cruise industry report card, scoring 10 major cruise companies on sewage treatment, air pollution reduction, water quality compliance, and accessibility of environmental information. The highest score, for Norwegian Cruise Lines, was a B and even they scored a D for air pollution. Two companies, Royal Caribbean International and Disney Cruise Line, rated a big fat F.
And that’s all before you look at the human impact. Which is huge.
Some of these cruise ships are absolutely ginormous. They arrive at their destination, a small fishing town in the Mediterranean perhaps, or an historic but small city like Charleston in South Carolina. Thousands of people get off the boat and flood the city on foot, or in rental cars, and get back on the ship at night before they can spend too many tourist dollars in the local economy. Meanwhile, the ship’s crew are unloading all the waste they didn’t dump at sea and foisting it on the city authorities. Hmm, it doesn’t sound very sustainable, does it?
Boats and ships make sense in some parts of the world. When I went to Svalbard in the Arctic, I took a trip on an ice-strengthener (different to an ice-breaker, but similar). There was no other realistic way for me to explore this beautiful part of the world and it was the trip of a lifetime. Yet we weren’t talking about a floating city – this was a small ship with room for about 50 passengers, plus tour company staff and the ship’s crew.
And they might make sense for you. Perhaps you really love cruising, you’re scared of air travel, not keen on road trips and there are no trains in your area. I can’t relate to this but it might be true for some people. I’m not saying you should miss out on your holiday – but do go in with your eyes open. Consider going for a smaller ship or using the Friends of the Earth report card to make your decision. Let the cruise liner’s sales and marketing staff know that you care, and ask lots of hard questions on board. Sign the petition to support the Clean Cruise Ship Act.
But if you are like most people and a cruise trip is just one of many vacation ideas you are tossing up, perhaps you might want to give it a miss after all?
The photograph of the cruise ship is by BR0WSER on Flickr, reproduced here under a Creative Commons licence.
On EcoSalon: Your role in the Copenhagen climate talks
My climate change site: Countdown to Copenhagen
New media: TckTckTck
News: Guardian Copenhagen site
Related posts on green travel
Riding the scenic West Highlands Railway (by me on EcoSalon)
10 things to love about train travel (by me on EcoSalon)
Greening the great American road trip (by me on EcoSalon)
Green your city breaks (by me on EcoSalon)
Shangri-La no more (Roaming Tales)
Should tourists visit Peru’s Incan ruins? (Roaming Tales)