Cruise ships represent the immensity of travel in the modern world. The access to oceanic space from the luxury and comfort onboard is part of the mass appeal for consumers, but there is a darker side to the glistening structures that line our waters. Often dubbed as ‘floating cities’, despite their testament to modern engineering, the industry is an environmental disaster. In the adversity of lockdown, there have been enormous economic pressures and questions over the future of travel across the globe. However, the current pandemic and suspension of most of the cruise industry’s activities have also afforded a unique opportunity to re-examine the environmental impact of these ships, and whether a green recovery is possible.
In the first few months of 2020, tourist industries across the globe ground to a halt. After revelations in February that passengers onboard the Diamond Princess cruise liner had tested positive for coronavirus, the ship was quarantined. Over 700 out of 3,711 people became infected, drawing attention to how quickly disease can spread between humans within these spaces. This was an early insight into the capability of the virus – by March, the World Health Organisation declared the Covid-19 outbreak a pandemic.
The very public quarantining of the ship also began to bring into doubt the future of the cruise industry itself, with the unprecedented loss of human activity triggering a global economic crisis, particularly affecting the travel industry. But by its nature, a crisis exposes, providing an opportunity to undo and reform. In lockdown, calls have been made for a re-evaluation of our carbon-hungry lifestyles. With cities experiencing falls in carbon dioxide during the pandemic, significantly improving air quality, this momentary release for nature has offered a glimpse of hope for how quickly we can reduce our global emissions.
However, there is scepticism over how long this will last. The short-term effects of the virus will be dependent on the decisions by political leaders in the long-term – these green recovery policies will either make or break our response to climate change.
Like so much of our carbon-hungry lifestyles, from fast-fashion to food consumption, travel industry emissions are one of the largest contributors to global warming. Cruise liners promote their facilities as the pinnacle of luxury, offering an alternative to flying while being able to take thousands of passengers across the world at a time. However, advocacy groups have criticised these operators for the lack of transparency in their data. The newly formed grassroots movement Ocean Rebellion recently launched adisruptive, non-violent protest against a 196-metre luxury cruise liner docked in Falmouth Harbour in August. Highlighting the environmental devastation of cruise ships, the climate action group claimed that the targeted ship “emits ten times more greenhouse gases per person per mile than a jumbo jet”, due to its circumnavigation across the globe.
The 2019 Cruise Ship Report Card compiled by Friends of the Earth detail a comparison of cruise lines, ranking their commitment to reducing their environmental impact. Four factors were graded: waste treatment, air pollution reduction, water quality compliance and overall transparency. With the emergence of the pandemic, in the new climate of 2020, the findings of the report highlight the opportunities for a green recovery as the cruise industry begins to restart.
With growing pressure from activists and consumers, operators are responsible to make the changes necessary for the long-term. Yet travellers also have an important role to play by supporting the companies committed to reducing their environmental impact. The coronavirus pandemic has highlighted the potential of a green recovery for the cruise industry and beyond – calls for deep reform demonstrate the opportunity to modify the industries in our global system and create a sustainable future for all.
– Leoni Fretwell
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