Cruising to Climate Chaos

'The Norwegian Jew'

'The Norwegian Jew'

Yes yes I know I haven’t blogged for several months.   Sorry people.   Perhaps a part of me wanted to allow the Sustrans article to stew in its own juices (more about Sustrans soon). Or maybe I just needed to step back from it all.  But I’m back online now, and headed to the States for a few months.  I plan to continue to present my Driven to Excess research, see what trouble I can stir up, and of course catch up with friends and family.

I’m booked on the next Virgin flight from Heathrow…….Ha!!!  Got you!  Justkidding…  I’ll actually be travelling with my friend Leah, via the Norwegian Jewel cruise ship (depicted above).   I know that cruises are the floating symbol of excess, the Las Vegas of transatlantic options, the carbon glutton of the seas- some say three times the impact of flying, but……

Unfortunately I don’t know anyone with a sailboat, and the recession’s impact on the cruise industry mean that you can get relatively cheap passage at the moment. This is in comparison to basic accommodation on a cargo ship which is twice as much!  I’ll be reflecting on these conundrums and more here on my blog during my overland return journey to San Francisco from September 19th to October 15th, so watch this space! 

When I rang up NCL Cruise Lines to book the voyage, I thought the agent said the ship was called the ‘Norwegian Jew.’     I could imagine this man with long braided sideburns eating gefilte fish out of a fjord…

Anyway… my friend who works in the travel industry, writes to me:

“The most damaging mode of transport you could have chosen.  I hope campaigners against big fat polluting cruise ships close the port on the day you travel xxx”

Yes, Ali, I hope so too.    Indeed I am experiencing carbon guilt.   Nevertheless I am going to try and enjoy it, sliding down the waterslide and going for a swim, enjoying a show or two and trying not to think of the Africans, Bangladeshis, and Tuvaluans for whom the emissions from the smokestacks mean they’re homes will be submerged and livelihoods destroyed.

Anyway, we will be stopping for the day in Lerwick, Shetlands, Reykjavik, Iceland,  St. John’s, Newfoundland, and Halifax, Nova Scotia before arriving in New York on the 30th.  I have talks scheduled in Halifax, New York, and hopefully the University of Iceland in Reykjavik will come through soon as well.

I will be blogging daily across the Atlantic, finding out what life is like on a cruise ship, how ‘environmentally friendly’ these ships actually are, and interviewing other passengers, particularly those who are on board to avoid a transatlantic flight.

Stay tuned from the 19th of September, when the Jew leaves Dover.  Come down to the dock and protest if you like 😉   J x


10 responses to “Cruising to Climate Chaos

  1. Hi Josh, good luck on your travels and come back to blighty soon. Your choice of a cruise ship raises some interesting questions.

    For example what is your share of the responsibility for the carbon emissions (and other environmental impacts)?

    I would argue that passengers are responsible in proportion to the amount they have paid, so a stowaway would not be responsible at all since he would be contributing nothing towards funding the cruise, at least until they catch him and make him do the dishes.

    I use a similar argument in relation to air travel. Very cheap flights (say around £20) with the likes of Easyjet and Ryanair bear relatively little responsibility for the emissions since fares of that level cannot be sufficient to generate profits (or even to cover costs?) and without profits there would be no flights.

    It follows that it is those who pay the higher fares who generate the profits and therefore bear the greater responsibility for the emissions. That is not to say that those who pay minimal fares bear no responsibility but relatively little, in proportion to the fare paid.

    The plane flies not directly because people want to travel on it but because people pay the airline to fly the plane. If they didn’t pay it wouldn’t fly, irrespective of how many people had turned up hoping for a cheap flight. So he who pays the pilot cops the guilt.

    So it is with all other polluting activities, including of course your cruise ship and before that the cargo ship which brought you to our shores. Your contribution to the emissions may have been higher in the case of the cargo ship because you paid more money.

  2. That’s a very interested argument from Chris.

    The basic efficiency of ships remains dire, though.

    Some may say “three times the impact”, but that’s rather understating it. At the start of the “jet age”, Boeing made great play about the relative efficiency of the first generation 707 vs. ocean liners. “Using about one-tenth the fuel, a jetliner costing $5 million could carry as many passengers a year as the $30 million Queen Mary.” So there you have it. Boeing claimed that air travel was ten times more efficient back in the 1950s. Newer jets are much more efficient than the first 707s were, but ships still burn much the same amount of the same horrible high sulphur fuel they ever did.

  3. On the plus side, they don’t inject it right into the upper atmosphere as planes do. But it’s true, cruise ships are very inefficient. Cargo ships are probably better because they would be going anyway and are not having to lug around a swimming pool and all the other accoutrements of a cruise. It’s odd that they should be so much more expensive than a cruise. Presumably they don’t have to fill their berths so they don’t bother knocking down the prices.

    That said, we did take a cruise once (to Antarctica, I know – shoot me now) and it was brilliant, as long as you stay out on deck and ignore everything going on inside the boat (Bingo anyone?). Take binoculars and plenty of good books.

  4. Hi David,

    I think you might be comparing chalk with cheese. A cruise taking 11 days and involving visits to four or so places en route is not really comparable to a single flight. Visiting the same places in succession would involve 5 flights assuming direct flights were possible, more if some flights were indirect.

    Then you have to take account of the greater damage done by aviation emssions at altitude which I hear are 3 times as damaging as at sea level. So I suspect there is not so much difference between cruising and taking flights.

    Shipping has greater potential to reduce pollution per passenger. First energy expended for a given distance varies greatly with speed so accepting a slower speed and longer journey time would reduce emissions. Secondly ships could potentially make good use of wind energy, for example by being towed by a large kite. Even wave and solar energy might be utilised.

    Thirdly the number of passengers carried on a ship could be vastly greater than the 2,000 or so on the Norwegian Jewel if travellers accepted more spartan conditions and reducing the need for crew (over 1,000!) by say mucking in with cooking and cleaning. I reckon you could accommodate around 10,000 passengers on a similar ship if you cut out most of the frippery.

    I know that’s a world away form the luxury cruise concept but if air travel becomes prohibitively expensive due to carbon charges/taxes then shipping once again may be the only affordable option for ‘overseas’ travel.

  5. Chris, the comparison was made specifically about trans-Atlantic journeys. The earliest boeing 707 used a tenth of a fuel per passenger that was consumed by travelling on the Queen Mary on an Atlantic crossing. That’s with primitive 1950s jet technology on by today’s standards a small and primitive aeroplane. More recent “jet engines” have far higher bypass ratios which makes them much more efficient than those early engines.

    I would be surprised if packing 10000 on a liner would be enough to reverse this ten to one ratio in fuel consumption, even if you also slowed the ships down (time on board also adds a cost, of course as you need to carry more food, heating fuel etc.). Conditions would be horrible, too, on such an overcrowded ship.

    If anything is to become “the only affordable option” I think it will be flying, not sailing. Doubly so if carbon charges are added.

    It’s already started to happen. A couple of years ago the high speed ferry between Harwich and Hoek van Holland was withdrawn due in large part to the cost of running it. Easyjet can continue to operate even though they charge so much less per passenger because their aircraft are so much more efficient than a ferry.

    I have doubts about this “three times as damaging” lark referring to aircraft emissions. In the short term, the emissions may be more harmful high up. However, that’s only the short term. In the long term, the atmosphere is not fixed in one place but moves around. Eventually it matters not at all. Emissions from low altitudes will find their way to high altitudes and visa-versa. With a longer term view we need to reduce emissions overall and concern ourselves so much with where emissions are happening.

    Further, a significant part of the emissions for short haul flights are actually at quite low altitudes.

    Proposals for modern sailing / kite powered cargo ships have been around for years. It would be nice if they eventually became reality.

  6. @ David Hembrow,
    Thanks for the interesting link to Boeing’s site, however you need to be very careful interpreting those figures. For one thing they’re very vague, and to me they look out right false.
    From the same website we can gain that the Boeing 707 you mention had a mere capacity of 141-seats. Plus a generous 15 man crew and thats some 156 people that got over to the US. It also mentions that the plane

    “increased fuel capacity from 15,000 gallons to more than 23,000 gallons, the 707 had truly intercontinental range of over 4,000 miles”

    I interpret that to mean it required somewhere in the region of 23,000 gallons in order to fly to America.
    Compare this to the Queen Mary which could carry 1957 passengers and 1174 crew> in a single journey and its fuel consumption is 1 mile / litre which by my calculations makes the queen mary’s consumption over a 4000 mile stretch just 879 gallons.

    Furthermore, of course the 707 managed to transport vast numbers of passengers, it could do what, 20 flights in the time it took for one sea crossing. 20 x 141 passengers = 2820 passengers by air in the time it takes to do one sea crossing. It also means 20 x the fuel of that one single flight which is supposed to be more efficient.

    If aeroplanes were in anyway efficient or cost effective at carrying weight over long distances, why do we ship 300 times more cargo by sea? (about 51 trillion tonne-kilometers in 2007 by the way).

    I guess there are questions that remain, such as what is in the actual fuel, and whether or not the Queen Mary reliably filled all of its berths, but even factoring in these variables shipping is vastly more efficient per tonne-kilometer than almost any other form of transport. We could increase the efficiency further by indeed reducing the bingo halls and swimming pools.

    There is an even simpler way to understand why shipping is efficient per tonne kilometer. The Queen Mary traveled at some 35 miles per hour. The 707 traveled at 600 miles per hour. Things that go fast, need more fuel.

    I welcome any further, more detailed, evidence based information on the fuel consumption of cruise ships (as opposed to container ships) or the actual number of passengers using the ship (as opposed to its advertised capacity). These are the only determining factors, and the 2nd of which is a matter for publicity, persuasion, carrots and sticks, not science.

    See also my carbon footprinting investigation into container ships here

    Josh, be safe, take care xx

  7. Also check out the Guardian article on the subject of cruises vs. flying at

    Here are some thoughts I put down in an e-mail a few weeks ago:

    I think it’s safe to say that long distance travel is pretty bad for the climate, unless you do so using a sailboat and a bicycle. When I gave up flying, I did so in protest of expansion plans such as the third runway at heathrow. Clearly there are major issues with aviation such as noise over both populated and remote areas that aren’t an issue with ships, but clearly ships are seriously polluting beasts as I described in my blog while aboard the cargo ship.

    In addition, they do a great deal of damage to ocean life- see

    My thinking about why I don’t fly is based around the following:

    1. It’s much easier to emit a massive amount of carbon in a shorter time while flying. 5-6 short breaks to Europe aren’t unheard of and this is far more than most people could emit while traveling on the ground level.

    2. When traveling by sea and train, you see more of the planet and are more likely to meet diverse people, and witness firsthand the impact of climate change. It’s far easier to insulate yourself from this when travelling by air.

    3. Air travel is uncomfortable and some say very toxic (the cabin air is circulated across the engines)

    4. There is far greater scope to make ships more efficient than planes, such as the use of giant sails, and higher density passenger accommodations. There is very little scope for reducing the carbon footprint of planes, despite the virgin biofuel greenwash.

    5. Comparing a cruise ship to a plane is comparing apples to oranges- a plane is just a to b transport. A ship is like a floating resort, so inevitably it’s going to use more energy-= energy that might have been used by passengers at their destination resort.

    Hope that gives you some insight into my decision.

  8. @Louise: I’m afraid you misread the data about the Queen mary on the page you linked to. It consumed 1 litre of fuel per metre, not per mile (it was also stated as 13 feet per gallon). i.e. You underestimated the fuel consumption by a factor of 1600 – which quite easily confirms Boeing’s figures.

    I stand by what I said before: The 707 was much more efficient than the Queen Mary. What’s more, recent jets are much more efficient again. Unless you use a sail boat, flying is currently easily the most efficient way of crossing the Atlantic.

    So, why do we send bulk items by sea ? Well, that works out very differently. Bulk carriers don’t need to travel at the 28 knots that the Queen Mary managed, and lower speeds greatly reduce fuel consumption. They’ve slowed down in the last few years (as have aeroplanes, btw, and I don’t just mean the demise of Concorde. The 707 had a higher cruising speed than modern jets). Also, bulk items in a ship make rather better use of the space available than passengers do. Passengers require food, heating, shops, swimming pools, cinemas etc. to pass the considerable time it takes the cross the Atlantic by ship, while most bulk goods just sit in the hold.

    Anyway, good luck to Josh on his journey. If nothing else, I’m sure the cruise will be memorable. I agree, btw, that Virgin’s biofuel claims are pure greenwash.

  9. I’m going to try to follow you journey here but don’t count on it. So please plan to fill me in on the details when I see you in SF.

  10. Pingback: The Not-so-Shiny Jewel: An Investigation into the Environmental Impacts of the Cruise Industry « On the Level: Car Free Blog

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