The invisible climate impact of a cruise ship

BRUSSELS – Cruise operators are replacing oil-based fuel with liquefied natural gas to run their ships and pitching the shift as a greener way to travel, but an investigation by environmental activists suggests the change could be worse for the climate in the short term.

Although ships burning liquefied natural gas (LNG) result in about 25 per cent less carbon dioxide emissions than traditional marine fuels, the vessels often fail to combust all of the invisible gas.

That means some of it leaks directly into the atmosphere where it can have a devastating impact on the climate. One of the most common engines used on LNG-powered ships leaks 3.1 per cent of its fuel, according to the European Commission.

Using a special camera that can detect the invisible gas, a certified thermographer hired by Brussels-based non-profit Transport & Environment (T&E) boarded a cruise ship in Barcelona in June as a passenger and filmed large hydrocarbon plumes spewing from the ship’s giant exhaust funnels.

The emissions from the MSC World Europa vessel almost certainly include the potent greenhouse gas methane, according to an independent analysis of the footage from Texas-based TCHD Consulting.

Switzerland-based MSC Cruises said in a statement that data from the World Europa’s engine manufacturer shows the ship’s engines have methane leakage significantly lower than the rate of 3.1 per cent, “which is an indicative value based on older technologies”.

The company declined to disclose the methane leak rate and said it doesn’t have data that can confirm the annual methane releases from the vessel. It may start a direct measurement process later this year.

Methane, which is the primary component of LNG and responsible for roughly 30 per cent of the planet’s heating, has more than 80 times the global warming potential of carbon dioxide during its first two decades in the atmosphere.

Halting releases of the planet-wrecking gas is one of the most effective ways to ease the Earth’s soaring temperatures within a few years. 

Globally, maritime transport – which includes cruise liners, container ships, oil tankers and bulk carriers – spews more CO2 than Germany.

While cruises only make up a tiny share of this sector, they are the most public facing. Therefore, any moves these ships make to adopt greener fuels will have an outsized influence in driving the energy transition, according to T&E. 

The International Maritime Organisation set new goals for reducing emissions that experts said fail to align with measures that would limit global warming to 1.5 deg C.

“LNG is far from an ideal solution,” said Ms Constance Dijkstra, a shipping campaigner with T&E. “Cruise operators are currently claiming they are going greener while still using damaging fossil fuels. To future-proof the sector, we need to move ships towards green-hydrogen based fuels.”


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