Just 83 cruise ships which visited Malta in 2017 belched out 148 times as much sulphur as the country's entire car fleet, new analysis shows.
The campaign group Transport & Environment (T&E) used satellite data to track 203 cruise ships as they sailed around Europe in 2017, comparing the air pollution caused to passenger car emissions.
In Malta, the estimated 283,000 road vehicles together generated 3.4 tonnes of toxic sulphur oxides (SOx) compared to a staggering 502.8 tonnes from the 83 cruise ships that visited the island.
The cruise ships also emitted nitrogen oxides (NOx) equivalent to 70 per cent of the car fleet and as much fine particulate matter (PM2.5) as 30 per cent of cars.
According to T&E, the reason for the extremely high emissions are due to overly lax marine fuel quality and engine emissions standards, made worse by the large size of marine engines and the time spent in port.
“Luxury cruise ships are floating cities powered by some of the dirtiest fuel possible,” T&E’s shipping policy manager, Faig Abbasov, said.
“Cities are rightly banning dirty diesel cars but they’re giving a free pass to cruise companies that spew out toxic fumes that do immeasurable harm both to those on board and on nearby shores. This is unacceptable.”
Air pollution in Malta, of which vehicle emissions have long been the primary cause, is a major public health concern.
Research published in the European Heart Journal this year estimated that air quality is responsible for 576 early deaths in Malta every year, more than twice as many as previously thought.
This is not the first time the danger of cruise ships in Malta has been highlighted.
One researcher last year identified pollution levels from cruise ships in the Grand Harbour 10 times higher than the island’s most congested roads.
There were an average of 316 cruise liner calls per year between 2014 and 2018, according to NSO figures.
Across the major ports of Europe, the T&E report found Barcelona, Palma de Mallorca and Venice to be the most polluted.
Malta did not feature among the 50 ports found to be most polluted in absolute terms.
In an analysis of different operators, the Carnival cruise company was found to be the worst offender: its ships alone emitted 10 times more SOx than all of Europe’s 260 million cars.
Carnival said in a statement the comparison and subsequent findings were “inaccurate, misleading and irrelevant”. The T&E report recommends a zero-emission berth standard for all European ports as well as extra stringent air pollution standards for cruise ships.
It notes that such vessels usually operate close to the coast with long port calls at major tourist destinations, disproportionately affecting air quality.