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The head of Europe’s largest cruise company has pitted himself against environmental campaigners by calling for the UN shipping regulator to “urgently relook” at new regulations grading ships on carbon emissions, arguing that the rules “penalise” passenger ships.
Pierfrancesco Vago, executive chair of MSC Cruises, said that industry lobby group Cruise Lines International Association, which he also chairs, was “engaging” with the International Maritime Organisation in an attempt to “revise the formula” at a meeting scheduled for spring next year.
Currently, the IMO’s carbon intensity indicator, which came into effect at the start of this year, grades cruise and container ships’ carbon efficiency on a scale of A to E by calculating the amount of carbon dioxide emitted per cargo-carrying capacity and nautical mile travelled. Cruise ship’s capacity is already calculated differently to freight ships using gross tonnage instead of deadweight tonnage.
The cruise industry argues that the formula penalises passenger ships, such as cruise liners and ferries, which tend to spend more time in port. “Obviously [the IMO] wanted to stick to a formula that impacted everybody — whether cargo carriers, chemical carriers, all the different divisions of shipping — but the one thing they didn’t take into account is passengers,” Vago told the Financial Times.
The cruise industry is now lobbying for a special amendment to the formula for passenger ships, which would calculate carbon intensity by analysing the mass of CO₂ emitted relative to the size of the ship and the number of hours in operation.
Vago added that the IMO now “actually understood” their argument for an amendment and he was “hopeful” the formula would be amended at the next meeting of the IMO’s marine environment protection committee in April.
However, Vago’s intervention provoked the ire of environmental campaigners who argue that the cruise industry is trying to rewrite the new regulations on their own terms. The cruise industry has clashed with some port cities over its environmental record: in 2021, larger cruise ships were banned from Venice’s lagoon and earlier this year Amsterdam’s city council banned cruise ships from the city centre to stop overtourism and curb pollution.
The push to tweak the IMO rules was “greenwashing at the highest level”, argued Faig Abbasov, shipping campaigner at climate lobby group Transport & Environment. “It’s a political issue of how they are trying to water down already inadequate IMO regulations through seemingly technical but ultimately very political correction factors, hoping nobody will notice.”
The carbon intensity indicator will produce the first data set about ships’ carbon efficiency in the new year and under IMO rules it must be reviewed before the start of 2026.
Bryan Comer, head of the International Council on Clean Transportation’s marine programme, said the tweak to the regulations “rewards ships that spend most of their time idling in ports, which is when the air pollution emissions have the largest potential impact on near-port communities”.
Research by Transport & Environment, published earlier this year, found that cruise ships operating in Europe pumped a total of 506 tonnes of sulphur oxides into the atmosphere in 2022, four times more than the amount emitted by all of the continent’s passenger vehicles.
“There’s really no reason why we ought to change the metric and in fact, changing the metric to replace nautical miles with time only serves to confuse the matter on which ships are actually efficient and which ships aren’t,” added Comer.
Vago argued that the current rules “penalise ships which stay too much in port”, adding that there was “a logic for which [the IMO] needed to urgently relook at the rule”. He added that with the introduction of shoreside charging, whereby cruise ships plug into the electricity grid reducing emissions, across the EU ahead of a 2030 deadline, the industry was encouraging the IMO “to treat the passenger with a different logic that will allow for ships to stay more in port, because as we are more in port, we consume much less in terms of emissions”.
The IMO said the review would “assess the need for any changes to the regulations themselves.”
“The outcomes of the review will determine what, if any, amendments should be developed and adopted,” the UN body added.
Vago also said the summer had proved to be an “extremely bullish season” for MSC Cruises, which was on course to surpass pre-pandemic annual revenues of €3.2bn this year.
The strong performance was despite disruption to the launch of the company’s Explora I luxury vessel because of a fire safety issue with some of the panels on board, which affected two other MSC ships and more cruise ships.
Vago said that CLIA had coordinated with certification societies to determine that the problem could be solved by “[applying] further anti-fire systems” rather than retrofitting the boats and taking them out of operation.
Additional reporting by Oliver Telling in London