Resident groups mounting a high court challenge to plans for a new wharf in Greenwich say diesel emissions from docked liners would breach legal limits
Toxic fumes from large cruise liners powered by giant diesel engines will worsen London’s air pollution and could prevent the city from meeting its EU legal limits on deadly nitrogen oxide emissions, says resident groups opposing a new terminal.
Plans for a wharf in the Thames that would be able to handle 240 metre-long cruise liners carrying up to 1,800 passengers and 600 crew were approved by Greenwich council last July but are being challenged in the high court by residents.
Developers say that 55 liners a year, each weighing around 48,000 tonnes, would be expected to spend up to three days “hotelling” at Greenwich. Using their auxiliary diesel engines while moored, they would burn around 700 litres of diesel an hour for six months of the year in a borough considered a hot spot for air pollution.
Consultants have calculated that each ship would emit the equivalent of 688 heavy lorries permanently running their engines at Enderby Wharf in Greenwich.
But larger ships, potentially the size of the 12-deck high Crystal Symphony, may also be allowed to moor at Enderby and would emit as many diesel fumes as 2,000 lorries a day, say objectors.
“On top of the ships the port will need tugs, hundreds of taxis and service vehicles all belching diesel close to high-density housing in an already heavily polluted area. I am aghast. Greenwich is already breaching EU limits. The council must know that 10,000 people a year die from diesel fumes a year in London,” said Ralph Hardwick, a campaigner from the Isle of Dogs.
“The alternative is to supply clean onshore power to the cruise vessels rather than running filthy diesel engines. Yet the current planning permission does not require a cleaner operation. Nor has a health feasibility study been undertaken,” said a spokesman for East Greenwich Residents Association.
A spokeswoman for London City cruise port declined to comment pending the legal challenge.
The residents will argue in court that the council should have required the development to provide an onshore power supply for the ships. If so, the liners could turn their engines off while berthed. Instead, it accepted the developers’ argument that it was not “commercially viable”.
The legal challenge follows law firm ClientEarth taking the UK government to court for a second time over what it says are its repeated failures to tackle illegal levels of air pollution in London and other UK cities. Last year the supreme court forced the government to rethink its plans to meet EU limits.
Concern about air pollution from cruise ships is growing as a new generation of mega-liners is commissioned and cruise holidays become more popular. The largest liners are now effectively floating cities, able to take 8,000 passengers and crew. Powered by some of the largest diesel engines in the world, they burn hundreds of tonnes of fuel a day.
“Air pollution emissions from ships are continuously growing, while land-based emissions are gradually coming down. If things are left as they are, by 2020 shipping will be the biggest single emitter of air pollution in Europe, even surpassing the emissions from all land-based sources together,” said a spokesman with Brussels-based Transport & Environment group.
Air pollution from international shipping accounts for around 50,000 premature deaths per year in Europe, at an annual cost to society of more than €58bn, according to studies.
In Southampton, one of nine UK towns and cities cited by the World Health Organisation as breaching air quality guidelines, up to five large liners a day can be berthed in the docks at the same time, all running engines 24/7, said Chris Hines, vice-chair of the Southampton Western Docks Consultation Forum (WDCF).
Southampton is one of the world’s busiest ports for starting and ending sea cruises. “Pollution from the ships is leading to asthma and other chest diseases. The docks are the most polluted areas of Southampton. The pollution is getting worse. We are now getting more, bigger liners, but also very large bulk cargo ships,” said Hines.
Under EU law, ships must switch to their auxiliary engines and burn low-sulphur fuel within two hours of arriving in port until two hours before they leave. However, there are no regulations on how much NOx and particulate emissions they can emit.
Low-sulphur fuel has greatly reduced SO2, or “acid rain” pollution but not other toxins like nitrogen oxides, benzene, toluene and formaldehyde which are emitted in diesel fuel and can have serious health impacts.
According to the Southampton city council scrutiny committee, admissions to hospital from lung, chest and heart diseases are most common from polluted areas like the docks.
According to evidence given to the committee by WDCF, the cumulative effect of up to 20 or more ships in port at the same time, including many large cruise liners with large diesel engines, was a major concern to the public. Incidences of lung diseases in the city and hospital admissions for respiratory diseases linked to air pollution were much higher than the average in England, it was said.
Emissions can be reduced by 95% if ships and ports are adapted allow ships a shoreside electricity supply but this is resisted by the industry on grounds of practicality.
According to Royal Caribbean, one of the largest cruise line companies in the world, only six out of the 490 ports that their ships visit have shore power.
In evidence to the scrutiny committee, Royal Caribbean said: “If Southampton were to explore installing shore power, it would be important to note that ships may not come equipped to use it. The European Union has stated that emissions reductions of only 1-3% of emissions are seen during a seven-night cruise during which a ship could use shore power at every port on the itinerary.”