From the upstairs windows in the house of Colin MacQueen there is not a view of the sea but he can see the ships. Docked in the port of Southampton, less than half a mile away, they tower over the roofs of flats and houses.
"These cruise liners are much bigger than the container ships. They use as much fuel as whole towns.”
The view is pretty spectacular. But it’s what he cannot see that worries MacQueen. Like many cities across the UK, Southampton has such poor air quality it breaches international guidelines, and while the government and local authorities are looking to take action on cars, maritime fuel – the dirtiest and most polluting of all diesels – is on no one’s radar. Not only do the giant cruise liners churn out pollutants at sea, they also keep their engines running when they are docked in places like MacQueen’s home town.
“Then there are the passenger vehicles and the hundreds of HGV trucks coming into the port every day,” said MacQueen, a Clean Air Southampton campaigner.
“On some days Southampton just grinds to a halt because of the volume.”
Britain is in the midst of something of a seafaring renaissance, with a growth in seagoing freight and an explosion in the holiday cruise market. Around the country, docks including those at Plymouth, Liverpool, Greenwich, Orkney, Edinburgh and Hull are proposing or working on expansions to accommodate more and bigger cruise and cargo ships.
The number of Britons taking cruise holidays is estimated to surpass 2 million this year, double the number a decade ago. Globally, some 25 million people set sail last year, up by 10 million in a decade.
For port towns, the issue is fraught, given the benefits the great ships bring. A campaign to stop the construction of a cruise terminal in Greenwich, south east London, failed last year, despite evidence of its impact on air quality. Almost 10,000 Londoners die prematurely every year due to air pollution. This weekend it was claimed the capital breached annual air pollution limits just five days into 2017.
“Unlike for airports, railways and roads, the Department for Transport does not provide clear guidance on which seaports should be prioritised for expansion, but generally supports growth,” said Melissa Moore, policy head at the Marine Conservation Society.
“Ever-larger ships necessitate capital dredges to expand navigational channels, which can result in habitat removal and increased emissions."
Dr Matt Loxham, an ocean and earth scientist at Southampton University, points out that it is not just ports but also Britain’s coast-hugging shipping lanes that create pollution, and these are not being measured, or considered in official air quality analysis.
“These big ships can be docked for several days as they load up, with engines idling. There is clearly a tightrope to be walked between quality of life for people and jobs and benefits to a city.”
German environment group Nabu claims one medium cruise ship emits as many pollutants as 5 million cars going the same distance. It says the ships belch out 3,500 times more sulphur dioxide than cars – although international rules to reduce sulphur emissions in shipping are due to come into force in 2020.