Cruise ships are giant floating hotels with shopping malls and casinos inside. The industry has made progress on sustainability, but much more needs to be done as consumer habits shift toward more sustainable vacation options.
In the age of climate change, travel companies around the world have worked hard to position themselves as not just environmentally sustainable but concerned with the well-being of locals in the places they ferry travelers to.
Cruising, however, remains one of the most popular forms of group vacations for travelers in North America despite its lack of sustainability bonafides.
Carnival Corp. released its annual sustainability report earlier this week on the heels of a ruling from the U.S. government regarding probation based on excessive pollution on Princess Cruise Line vessels.
The document, full of warm graphics and testimonials from Carnival’s global partners, is designed to obscure the reality that the world’s biggest cruise company hasn’t been able to make important strides in reducing its environmental footprint. At most, the cruise line has been able to add to its fleet without increasing the burden it puts on the environment.
Nestled toward the end of the report are the tables featuring the cruise line’s audited emissions inventory and sustainability data.
Here is a breakdown from the three major global cruise lines in terms of greenhouse gas emissions. Royal Caribbean Cruises hasn’t yet released its 2018 sustainability report and Norwegian Cruise Line doesn’t release its numbers, instead choosing to present annual percentage reductions in its emissions.
Direct GHG emissions (Metric Tons CO2e)
|Royal Caribbean Cruises||4,456,912||4,465,268||4,232,770||N/A|
|Norwegian Cruise Line||N/A||N/A||N/A||N/A|
Source: Cruise Line Sustainability Reports
Why the large discrepancy between Carnival and Royal Caribbean? Carnival operates 104 vessels as of the second quarter of 2019, while Royal Caribbean operates 61 on its own and through joint ventures with companies like TUI. Norwegian Cruise Line, the smallest of the big three companies, operates 16 ships right now according to its website.
Carnival boasts that it has reduced its carbon output by 27.6 percent based on its 2005 baseline, when it began a program to track and bring its environmental outputs into line with international standards. This is probably true, given how inefficient old ships were, but the way Carnival designed its original sustainability reports makes it difficult to really know.
Crunching the numbers a bit, this means the average Carnival Corp. vessel emitted about 102,377 metric tons of carbon dioxide last year, or 280.5 metric tons each day.
To put this in perspective, the average car emits just 4.6 metric tons per year, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. So the average Carnival vessel emits as much 22,256 cars each year, and the annual impact of Carnival Corp. overall is the same as 2,314,606 cars. Royal Caribbean came in at 940,616 cars in 2017.
There is a caveat that the cruise lines may not have a complete picture of their environmental impacts based on how the auditing is done of their systems.
“Due to inherent limitations in any internal control, it is possible that fraud, error, or non-compliance with laws and regulations may occur and not be detected,” reads a disclaimer from Lloyd’s Register following Carnival’s sustainability data. “Further, the verification was not designed to detect all weakness or errors in internal controls so far as they relate to the requirements set out above as the verification has not been performed continuously throughout the period and the verification carried out on the relevant internal controls were on a test basis. Any projection of the evaluation of control to future periods is subject to the risk that the processes may become inadequate because of changes in conditions, or that the degree of compliance with them may deteriorate.”
The Energy for Change
Energy use tells a similar tale. Total ship energy use totaled 136,486,695 gigajoules in 2018 according to the report. Crunching some more numbers, this is the equivalent of the energy use of approximately 3,645,828 U.S. homes based on 2017 data from the Environmental Protection Agency. Each ship on average, then, uses as much energy as 35,056 U.S. homes each year; each day, the average Carnival ship consumes the energy of 96 U.S. households. Older ships, of course, are less fuel efficient, while newer ships are more efficient but tend to be larger.
Those older ships, though, don’t magically disappear once they’re sold off by the giant cruise lines.
“Older cruise ships are generally sold into new markets and to operators that don’t compete directly,” said Monty Mathisen, managing editor of Cruise Industry News, a cruise industry trade publication that tracks cruise ship transactions. “The market for secondhand cruise ships, however, is extremely limited with only a few legitimate players that can grow capacity and find the financing. A 25- or 30-year old cruise ship with 1,300 berths can cost $65 million. Older ships cost more to operate, are less efficient, have fewer onboard revenue opportunities, and don’t command the ticket price of newer ships.”
Is There a Tech Fix?
Part of the problem is that efforts taken to reduce emissions have been canceled out by fleet growth. All three cruise companies have been adding to their fleets and will continue to add new ships well into the 2020s, fueled by affordable financing and a now-cooled demand boom in China. At a time where a consumer awareness of sustainability is growing, and major European cruise destinations are pushing back against excessive tourism, the cruise lines have a challenging future ahead.
For years the cruise industry has held out that new technological innovations will limit the impact of cruising on the environment. Carbon dioxide scrubbers, which have been installed on most ships across the industry, can only do so much to limit emissions.
A transition to liquefied natural gas fuel, as well, has had an extremely limited impact; the less pollutive fuel source only accounted for 0.01 percent of the company’s fuel consumption in 2018. There is also the matter of creating a supply chain for receiving the new form of fuel and the infrastructure in port to distribute it, which complicates the matter.
The numbers look bad, but cruising isn’t the only sector of travel that needs to do more to combat climate change. Global aviation is estimated to have contributed 724,000,000 tons of greenhouse gas emissions to global output in 2014, according to the Air Transit Action Group, which then accounted for 2 percent of global output. Cruising in 2019 pales in comparison to aviation as a polluter.
Cruising represents an affordable and fun getaway for global vacationers. At the same time, the industry has a long way to go to prove that it is growing with sustainability in mind.
Photo credit: Shown here is Carnival Elation. Brook Ward / Flickr