Over the past few years, the negative environmental impact of cruise tourism in Norwegian fjords has been in the public eye. The government and environmentalists have been especially worried about the pollution caused by cruise ships in the five UNESCO world heritage fjords, i.e. the Geirangerfjord, Nærøyfjord, Aurlandsfjord, Sunnylvsfjord and Tafjord. Since 2016 the Norwegian Maritime Authority (NMA) has worked with a response to these concerns, in cooperation with the industry. The result is now published.

As of 1 March, new and stricter rules on emission of sulphur oxides and NOx apply to certain ships entering the Norwegian world heritage fjords, targeting cruise ships specifically. The new rules are laid down as amendments to the Regulations of 30 May 2012 No. 488 on environmental safety for ships and mobile offshore units. The main purpose is to protect the UNESCO fjords by addressing aesthetical concerns and reducing the environmental footprint from the cruise industry.

Ban on open loop scrubbers in the world heritage fjords

Because of the potentially toxic effects of discharging contaminated scrubber water into fjords with limited water exchange, the new rules prohibit the use of open-loop scrubbers. Vessels entering the world heritage fjords are now therefore required to use either

  1. fuel with a sulphur content not exceeding 0,10 % by weight;
  2. an approved closed-loop scrubber; or
  3. an approved hybrid scrubber in closed-loop mode.

In addition, ships using compliant scrubbers are required to use a device for reducing the visible emission from the ships, mainly consisting of water vapour. The NMA has not specified the technical requirements of such a device.

The economic consequences for the cruise industry may be severe. Approximately 45 % of the world's cruise ships are already fitted with open-loop scrubbers, and it is expected that 60-70 % of all cruise ships will have some kind of scrubber technology installed by 2020 in order to comply with the International Maritime Organization's (IMO) global sulphur cap. Scrubber contracts are in many cases already signed, the instalment costs are high, and conversion of non-compliant scrubbers to compliant scrubbers is not economically feasible. The remaining alternative for the affected cruise ships is to run on high-cost low sulphur fuel. However, the new requirements are positive news for the local environment and for the preservation of the UNESCO fjords for future generations.

Stricter rules on NOx emissions

The vast majority of the NOx emissions in the UNESCO fjords derives from cruise ships. High concentrations of NOx and particle matter in the fjords has been a cause for concern, both in terms of environmental hazards and public health issues. To drastically reduce this problem, the NMA has now introduced demanding requirements for large vessels entering the world heritage fjords.

The new rules require ships of 1000 gross tonnage and upwards, regardless of year of construction,   to satisfy the NOx control requirements set out by MARPOL: Tier I by 2020, Tier II by 2022 and Tier III by 2025. This is a tight and costly time frame. As a way of lending a hand to the industry, the NMA may grant exemptions from the Tier I requirement upon written application if it can be documented that the ship will comply with the strict Tier III requirements in time. 

The costs related to compliance with these strict requirements are high – a conversion to LNG technology, which is compliant with Tier III requirements, may cost around MUSD 12. As a consequence it is expected that fewer cruise ships will enter the UNESCO fjords. The NMA, however, hold that the long term socioeconomic and environmental benefits for the many outweigh the costs for the few.

The new, special rules are a part of what seems to be a global trend. In several countries and ports the authorities have recently introduced similar stricter emission standards and/or prohibited the use of open-loop scrubbers. These local differences result in a fragmentation of the international legislative process that has, at least until now, secured a relatively high degree of predictability for the maritime industry. The rationale seems to be that local sustainability and ecological concerns are too important and time-critical to wait for collective action from the IMO.

The key takeaway is that the maritime industry must now keep itself updated about local regulatory trends and get involved early on a local level in the legislative processes.

Read the amendments to the regulation here.