The dirty holiday: Valletta cruise liners still depending on Heavy Fuel Oil

Cruise liners calling at Valletta’s Grand Harbour ranked for their environmental pollution, still not doing enough to lessen their environmental impact

Air pollution from a cruise liner in Valletta. Photo: Veerle Van Werde
Air pollution from a cruise liner in Valletta. Photo: Veerle Van Werde

Cruise liners that call at Valletta’s Grand Harbour remain amongst the most harmful of polluters due to the emissions from the combustion of Heavy Fuel Oil (HFO).

Six of these companies form part of a list of 14 cruise ship companies, rated for their environmental performance by BirdLife Germany (NABU), as part of an ongoing initiative with BirdLife Malta and Mediterranean partners in Together Against Air Pollution from Ships.

HFO, with its varying levels of sulphur and nitrogen, produces gases that are harmful to human health and the environment. But its impact is heightened when the ships cruise into the Grand Harbour in the vicinity of towns and cities.

NABU’s ranking evaluates how fare these companies are working towards clean, climate-neutral cruises by 2040, on the basis of 17 points. However, first-placed Hurtigruten Norway achieved just half of the achievable points, with all other companies rating behind. Among the top five are the three German companies AIDA, Hapag Lloyd Cruises, and TUI Cruises, which can be considered as pioneers for introducing measures on large ships.

But despite the promises made by these companies, so far little has been done in concrete terms to improve the situation.

Since the beginning of the year, at least 48 cruise liners from the Phoenix, Norwegian Cruise Lines, MSC, and Viking companies – which altogether made less than 30% progress in their measures to reduce harmful emissions – have called at Valletta.

The intensity of the harm is amplified when multiple cruise ships berth in one day, such as on 18 August, when the TUI, Norwegian and P&O ships berthed in Valletta, contributing immensely to the air pollution, including in the adjacent coastal area.

“In the tenth year of the cruise ranking, the results once again show that environmental and climate protection are still not at the forefront for the cruise companies. HFO continues to be the fuel of choice for the majority of the existing fleet. Only a few truly future-proof projects are in the planning and implementation stages. But the nature and climate crisis are pressing,” Sönke Diesener, NABU cruise expert, said.

While the majority of cruise companies is committed to the Paris Climate Goals to start using modern batteries and fuel cells, these so far only complement the combustion engine. HFO still dominates the market today, and cruise ship holiday bookings feature almost exclusively ships that use fossil fuels.

While more and more ships are shore-power capable, but actual usage is still very low. Hurtigruten, Hapag Lloyd Cruises, and Ponant score well with HFO phase-out and shore power.

And in Malta, a shore-to-ship connection for cruise ships berthed at the port is being developed, which will allow parked ships to connect to the electrical grid. This would allow ships to switch off their engines at the port, significantly reducing the emissions around residential areas.

Infrastructure Malta claims that such a measure “will drastically reduce the emissions of cruise ships visiting Malta” as it will lead to up to 93% less Nitrogen Oxides, 92.6% less particulate matter and 99.6% less Sulphur Dioxide emissions from ships.

Malta, along with the rest of the Mediterranean, is expected to establish a Sulphur Emission Control Area (SECA) in 2025, gradually further restricting also the levels of nitrogen in fossil fuels.

Other countries such as Norway has had a strict Nitrogen Oxide regime since 2007, and certain fjords may only be navigated by zero-emission ships soon.