It makes sense that a longtime leader of a cruise company would give lip service to sustainability. To say consumer concerns about the sector's sustainability are fake, however, risks alienating customers at a pivotal moment for the sector.
As the cruise sector looks to reform its image as being a major global polluter, some cruise lines are doing more than others to make cruising more sustainable.
Norwegian Cruise Line, for instance, will eliminate single-use plastics from its fleet in the coming years. Others are exploring using less pollutive fuel and more efficient electrical systems on new-build vessels.
MSC Cruises, the fourth-largest and only privately-held major cruise line in the world, announced Friday that it will purchase carbon offsets for its operations. Many companies, including Lyft, have enacted carbon offset programs to assuage consumer fears about travel’s effect on global warming.
In an interview with the Miami Herald, MSC Cruises executive chairman Pierfrancesco Vago told reporters that concerns about the sector’s sustainability aren’t just overblown: they’re not even factual.
“A lot of people in this part of the world in Europe have been saying cruise ships are not environmentally friendly,” he said. “That’s the fake news I’m referring to.”
As of press time, MSC Cruises did not respond to a request to comment on whether the company’s leadership believes the media is lying about the sector’s sustainability record.
In fact, it is fake news that carbon offsets limit the amount of pollution created by cruising or any other industry.
The problem with offsets is that they don’t do anything to ameliorate the problem of pollution; they cancel out the carbon output of a service, effectively, akin to covering up a wall coated in lead paint with a fresh new layer. The carbon still goes into the atmosphere, but is offset by planted trees, carbon capture technology, or sustainable development programs.
Carbon offsets represent one of the easiest steps toward greenwashing, the phenomenon where brands attempt to create a green image for their company while not addressing the underlying causes of the pollution they emit.
Still, it does represent some progress for the sector.
“Carbon offsets are a start of lessening environmental impact,” said Monty Mathisen, managing editor of industry publication Cruise Industry News. “Many cruise lines are also installing scrubbers to meet 2020 IMO air emissions requirements while still burning heavy fuel oil as opposed to more expensive marine gas oil.”
A Skift analysis of major cruises lines earlier this year found the average cruise ship operated by Carnival Corporation produces the same carbon annually as 22,256 cars. On each day, a Carnival ship consumes the amount of energy equal to 96 U.S. households, as well.
MSC Cruises reported that it emits 2.2 million tons of CO2 annually, about half that of Royal Caribbean Cruises in 2017, the last year it released a sustainability report. It appears that the average MSC Cruises ship, then, emits almost twice the CO2 of the average Royal Caribbean vessel. This could be due to the age of its vessels, or simply because reducing carbon output isn’t a priority for the company.
It is impossible to gauge the true environmental impact of cruising. No cruise line is required by law to release a sustainability report detailing its operations, although Carnival Corporation and Royal Caribbean Cruises elect to produce them, with the caveat that auditors can’t fully guarantee the numbers listed.
Cruise lines face a challenge as new restrictions on maritime pollution begin enforcement on Jan. 1, 2020. In a recent Skift deep dive, we found that scrubber technology reduces pollution in the air by creating liquid or solid waste instead. Cruise lines maintain they are following the law and focused on sustainability, even if this new form of waste created may have dire consequences for marine life and the global fishing sector.
Taken together, these efforts paint a picture of an industry making the effort to appear sustainable while doing the bare minimum to avoid alienating consumers. That’s certainly not fake news and will give pause to global consumers looking to ensure their next vacation isn’t contributing to the destruction of the environment.
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Photo credit: Guests party on an MSC Cruises vessel. MSC Cruises