• The cruise industry is the fastest growing in tourism and is expected to exceed pre-COVID record highs in passenger numbers and revenues by next year
  • The industry promises to make zero-emission vessels and fuels widespread by 2030, and to achieve a goal of ‘net-zero carbon’ cruising by 2050
  • Environmental groups cite its record on pollution, greenhouse gas emissions, and over-tourism, and raise doubts about its ability to reach goals
  • Concerns include widespread use of “scrubbers”, LNG as transition fuel, and limited capacity for shore-based power in ports

July 21 – The Covid-19 pandemic was a disaster for the cruise ship industry. Images of “plague ships” with stranded passengers and crew, many ill with the virus, travelled around the globe.

The fastest-growing sector in the travel industry which carried nearly 30 million passengers in 2019, has long been criticised for its impact on the environment and coastal communities. With Covid, it was under an additional spotlight for health and safety. It was hard to see how it was going to bounce back from this reputational damage that saw its share prices tumble.

Yet in April, the Cruise Lines International Association (CLIA) predicted that the industry would exceed its pre-Covid record highs in terms of passenger numbers and revenues by next year, and grow to 12% above pre-pandemic levels by 2026.

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At the same time, it announced a series of sustainability commitments “that will drive innovation for a more efficient future”, including a target of achieving net-zero carbon cruising by 2050.

“We are reducing the carbon footprint of our ships while at berth and at sea, investing in advanced environmental technologies and partnering with cities and ports on sustainable destination management. By equipping cruise ships with the ability to connect shoreside electricity, and using it where available, the cruise industry is prepared to eliminate emissions while at port for the benefit of local communities.”

CLIA also said it would join the Global Maritime Forum’s Call to Action for Shipping Decarbonization, making zero-emission vessels and fuels the default choice by 2030.

But the industry has its work cut out to reduce its environmental impacts. According to a recent study published in Marine Pollution Bulletin, a large cruise ship can have a carbon footprint greater than 12,000 cars, while passengers on an Antarctic cruise can produce as much CO2 emissions on a seven-day voyage as the average European in an entire year, the study said. Meanwhile, the industry is a major producer of waste, with the total amount of rubbish produced by a large cruise ship exceeding a ton per day.

Passengers in COVID isolation on the Diamond Princess off the coast of Japan in February 2020. REUTERS/Kim Kyung-Hoon

Cruise ships are firmly in the sights of environmental groups such as Friends of the Earth (FoE), whose U.S. chapter produces an annual Cruise Ship Report Card evaluating 18 cruise lines on four environmental factors: sewage treatment, air pollution reduction, water quality compliance and transparency.

Despite noting pockets of improvements, its 2021 report is damning. “Unfortunately, everything that cruise ships come into contact with are likely to be harmed along their journey. The air, water, fragile habitats, coastal communities, and wildlife are all affected,” the report said. “The disregard for public and environmental health continues with the recent restart of the cruise industry in the U.S. in 2021. Without legally binding regulations, the cruise industry will continue to pollute and threaten public health at will.”

One of the lowest-scoring cruise companies on FoE’s list is Carnival, the world’s largest cruise ship company, with a fleet of 92 ships that under normal operations carry 13 million passengers annually to 700 ports, nearly half the overall global cruise market.

In January this year, Princess Cruise Lines, owned by Carnival, was fined $1 million by the U.S. Department of Justice after pleading guilty to violating, for a second time, a five-year probation. This was imposed in 2017 after it pleaded guilty to “felony charges stemming from deliberate dumping of oil-contaminated waste from one of its vessels, and intentional acts to cover it up”. The $40 million penalty in 2017 was the largest-ever fine for intentional pollution from a ship.

In 2019, while still on probation, Princess was fined $20 million for six further violations, including the dumping of plastic waste into Bahamian waters and falsifying records. This year’s fine relates to the failure of both Princess and Carnival “to establish and maintain an independent internal investigative office”, according to the Department of Justice.

Yet Carnival is one of 500 signatories to the Glasgow Declaration on Climate Action in Tourism, which was launched at the COP 26 climate summit last year, under which organisations commit to halve their emissions by 2030 and achieving net-zero by 2050 at latest.

Carnival is also highlighted in the World Travel and Tourism Council’s Net Zero Roadmap for Travel and Tourism for commitments including a 40% reduction in CO2 emissions per available lower berth per day (ALBD), and a 50% reduction in absolute air emissions of particulate matter by 2030.

The cruise ship Carnival Miracle sits in fog at the port of the Long Beach, California. REUTERS/Mike Blake

Asked to respond to the FoE report, and to its recent fines, Roger Frizzell, a spokesman for Carnival, said Princess “is no longer under court oversight”. He said this was something that was not reflected in FoE’s scoring system, which he described as “arbitrary” and “unscientific”.

He also challenged the F score for lack of transparency, saying data was available online and on its sustainability report. “Our ultimate goal across all our brands is net-zero greenhouse emissions by 2050 and we are making strong progress, by any measure, through our many initiatives that include electrical shore power capabilities, advanced wastewater treatment plants, reduction in plastics and waste, and implementation of new green technologies such as LNG (liquified natural gas), fuel cells and large storage battery systems in addition to our air quality systems installed on our ships.”

The CLIA, which met in Genoa, Italy, in June for the industry’s first summit decarbonisation summit, says cruise lines are currently investing upward of $25 billion in new vessels with improved environmental performance.

In large part this is to meet new rules from the International Maritime Organization, which came into force in 2020 for the entire shipping industry, slashing the sulphur content of fuel oil from 3.5% to 0.5%.

CLIA says 76% of global cruise ships capacity currently use exhaust gas cleaning systems, known as scrubbers, which meet or exceed air emissions requirements. There is also growing use of LNG, which cuts CO2 emissions by about 25%, and contains little sulphur and nitrogen oxide. While only four ships in service are LNG, 52% of ships on the order books are scheduled to use the fuel, which CLIA views as a bridge to lower carbon solutions, including biofuels, synthetic fuels, ammonia and methanol.

“It provides immediate benefits while aggressive research and development is simultaneously underway for a transition to new fuels,” a spokesperson said.

One example is MSC Cruises’ newest ship, MSC World Europa, which will be the world’s largest LNG-powered cruise ship when it launches in October.

Climate activists in Vancouver, Canada, demonstrate against the dumping of sewage and pollution into the ocean by cruise ships. REUTERS/Jennifer Gauthier

Amongst other features, the ship has advanced wastewater treatment technology, shore-to-ship connectivity, and a 150-kilowatt solid oxide fuel cell demonstrator, which MSC says will “help us prove and refine environmental technologies for the future of our fleet”.

But there are conflicting studies on the environmental implications of the widespread use of scrubbers, which green groups say allow the industry to continue to use heavy fuel oil.

Others, including Friends of the Earth, question whether LNG should be used as a transition fuel. The International Council on Clean Transportation, a U.S. based NGO, warned in a 2020 study that while uptake of LNG will cut CO2 emissions, it could actually make the shipping industry’s impact on climate change worse, due to leakage of methane, a greenhouse gas (GHG) that is 86 times more potent than CO2 in the short term.

The study found that even the most efficient, high-pressure injection dual fuel engines emitted 4% more lifecycle GHG over 20 years than marine gas oil, while more commonly used low-pressure dual fuel engines emitted 70% more lifecycle GHGs than marine gas oil.

“Given this, we conclude that using LNG does not deliver the emissions reductions required by the IMO’s initial GHG strategy, and that using it could actually worsen shipping’s climate impacts,” ICCT said. “Further, continuing to invest in LNG infrastructure on ships and on shore might make it harder to transition to low-carbon and zero-carbon fuels in the future.”

The CLIA counters that while “methane slip” is an acknowledged problem, “engine technologies have significantly improved since the early 2000s and the industry now expects that there will be minimal methane slip by 2030.”

It also says the number of ships with shoreside power capability is rapidly growing and within five years at least two-thirds of the global cruise fleet will be equipped with this capability, which could dramatically reducing emissions of ships while in port.

Protesters in Venice, Italy, demonstrate against mass tourism and huge cruise ships. REUTERS/Manuel Silvestri

However, one big challenge is that only 14 passenger cruise ports worldwide have berths offering ship-to-shore power.

At the Genoa event, Marie-Caroline Laurent, CLIA’s director general in Europe, said the industry will need help from regulators. “The cruise industry has already taken firm and robust measures towards achieving its decarbonisation goals and, collectively, is committed to deliver …. We now need a clear legislative framework to encourage the investment and innovation that will be required for industry to achieve the 2030 EU Fit for 55 (climate) objectives and ultimately our 2050 ambitions.”

But as the cruise industry resumes its rapid growth trajectory, environmental impact is only one big cloud over the industry. Another is the return of over-tourism concerns that saw port cities, particularly in Europe, impose taxes and limit numbers to keep from being overwhelmed by swarms of cruise ship day-trippers.

The CLIA says sustainable tourism is a priority, and that it partners with “city authorities, ports, and other organisations on sustainable tourism initiatives to help preserve the integrity, cultural heritage, and beauty of the world’s most treasured destinations”.

But it’s not just in crowded European port cities where over-tourism is a concern.

The bringing of a million cruise passengers a year into a pristine marine environment was cited as one of the main concerns by local and international campaigners opposing Disney Cruise Lines’ project to build a new port on a 750-acre site on the southernmost tip of the Bahamian island of South Eleuthera, which had been proposed as a marine protected area.

Construction on the $400 million project began in March, after the Bahamas government accepted Disney’s environmental impact assessment, (EIA) which found that no loss of marine or terrestrial biodiversity could be expected as a result of the project, which will develop less than 20% of the property, with a further 25% donated to the people of the Bahamas.

An artist’s impression of Disney’s proposed Lighthouse development in the Bahamas. Handout via Disney

Cruise ship passengers will access the site via an open-trestle pier that extends into deep water, to avoid the dredging of a ship canal, while an environmental management plan includes the relocation of coral, Disney said.

Marcie Keever, who heads up Friends of the Earth’s oceans programme, said Disney Cruise Lines, with its four large ships, regularly receives top marks in its cruise report card for its environmental efforts and transparency, but was marked down a letter grade in this year’s report card, to B-, because of its decision to push through with the Lighthouse development. She said the EIA did not address the risk of over-tourism.

“How many cruise ships are planned? What is the plan to expand if they do develop? What will this mean on a weekly basis for the region? There is nothing in the EIA on the impact of the massive number of people on these ships”, she said.

Hrvoje Carić, a researcher at the Institute for Tourism in Croatia, says lack of transparency is a major issue for all the sector’s impacts. “We can’t get any confirmation of the claims they are making about biofuel innovations, for example. Where are the third-party confirmations or the audits? If they are under a flag of convenience, you can always doubt it.”

Daniel Skjeldam is chief executive of Norway’s Hurtigruten Group, which announced in May that ships on its Norwegian coastal routes will be emissions-free to sea and air by 2030.

He believes that the industry can be a force for good by opening up the minds of cruisers to new cultures, and the need for conservation to protect the world’s wildest places. The cruise industry is also a major source of income for many destinations, particularly in developing countries.

But in the prelude to the company’s latest sustainability report, he called for greater transparency in industry ESG reporting to instill confidence that it is on the right trajectory.

“It’s clear that the cruise industry and the wider travel sector have a lot of work to do to credibly tackle the climate emergency. There must be a collective effort between the travel industry, communities, governments, NGOs and academic institutions, for one company or community cannot do it alone.”

Additional reporting by Terry Slavin

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Opinions expressed are those of the author. They do not reflect the views of Reuters News, which, under the Trust Principles, is committed to integrity, independence, and freedom from bias. Ethical Corporation Magazine, a part of Reuters Professional, is owned by Thomson Reuters and operates independently of Reuters News.

Caroline Palmer

Caroline Palmer is a freelance journalist specialising in business, health, sustainability and the artisan economy. She has worked for the Financial Times, The Guardian and The Observer and is a contributor to Ethical Corporation magazine.