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Cruise control: pollution on the Thames

The Viking Star is the largest cruise ship to weigh anchor on the Thames The Viking Star is the largest cruise ship to weigh anchor on the Thames
03 Jul
2018
A rising number of cruise ships and their ‘overlooked’ diesel emissions are dropping anchor along the Thames, angering London residents in the process

From a distance you’d be forgiven for thinking it’s just another modern hi-rise development in the heart of London’s Docklands. A fanciful design maybe, but most likely a trendy apartment block or an over-designed co-working hub. Trek nearer and it quickly becomes apparent that the white behemoth sitting alongside the Thames bankside at Greenwich, dwarfing nearby buildings is something else entirely. Cruise liners are venturing farther and farther along the Thames and in doing so are sailing into a sea of controversy.

This summer, a total of 16 cruise ships are expected to sail beyond the Thames Barrier and dock at the floating port in Greenwich. That number could rise to a high of 60 ships should the construction of a permanent cruise port at Enderby Wharf (located between the O2 Arena and Greenwich Maritime Institute) go ahead and resident groups are concerned about the resulting increase in emissions of sulphur dioxide (SO2) and nitrogen oxides (NOx).

Cruise ships are not new to London – at least not to the Port of London. A cruise and cargo terminal at Tilbury, 20 miles downstream from Greenwich regularly hosts the largest of liners and has been facilitating sea-going holidaymakers since 1916. There is concern, however, that the location of the new dock, where the river is narrower and its banks more densely populated, will impact future residents as well as current ones. ‘The east of London is seeing a spate of redevelopment along the river, all of which will be close to this source of pollution,’ says Laura Eyres, a Greenwich resident and campaigner for No Toxic Cruise Port London, a community-led group made up of local residents and organisations.

The main point of contention is that cruise ships need to keep engines running when they stay – or ‘hotel’ – at destinations. Once docked, vessels are obliged to switch to low sulphur fuels under laws from the International Maritime Organisation. London residents are concerned that this isn’t enough. ‘The “low” part is only a relative term compared the incredibly high sulphur fuel the ships are permitted to burn at sea,’ says Ralph Hardwick, a fellow campaigner. ‘Low sulphur fuels do not address NOx output and the emissions still far exceed any vehicle that would ever be allowed on the road.’ An independent review calculated that one medium-sized cruise ship emits the equivalent of 688 idling lorries. The NOx byproducts can create smog, while SO2 can create acid rain.

One possible solution would be to build an onshore electric power terminal, which cruise ships could plug into in order to switch off their engines. However, onshore power was not included in the port’s original development plans when they were given the go-ahead by Greenwich council in 2012.

While measures have been made to reduce diesel emissions on the capital’s roads, there is confusion over who holds authority over Thames air pollution. Mayor of London, Sadiq Khan, has appealed to the UK government to make a cruise decision. His spokesman told Geographical: ‘[Khan] has called on the government to devolve to him the power to act on emissions from the city’s waterways as part of his wider efforts to clean up London’s air.’ 

This was published in the July 2018 edition of Geographical magazine

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