Skift Take

Alternative fuel sources are urgently needed, yes. But the cruise lines’ woes go well beyond emissions and remain unaddressed, even if CLIA now recognizes that really big ships aren't suitable for certain destinations. With climate change finally front and center, will more governments restrict megaships and regulate various impacts on host communities?

On the heels of global tourism’s leading organizations announcing a collective climate commitment at COP26, the cruise sector said that it also continues to make progress in environmental efforts.

The Cruise Line International Association (CLIA) released its annual environmental report this week, and said that its members — which include industry giants Carnival Corporation, Royal Caribbean Cruises and Norwegian Cruise Line — are committed to pursuing net carbon neutral cruising by 2050 and reducing emissions by 40 percent by 2030, and supporting the development of clean fuel alternatives.

The report comes at a time when cruise lines are slowly resuming sailing and preparing for a bigger comeback ahead, after a historic global suspension in the industry’s activities that led to over $25 billion in losses in 2020 and left the industry saddled with over $60 billions in debt in the first quarter of 2021, as well as a huge consumer confidence challenge.

Gathering information from 96 percent of CLIA’s global fleet or 242 ships, the report states that cruise lines have invested $23.6 billion in new ships with improved technologies: 82 percent of 62 new ships that are on order will be fitted with shoreside electricity systems, 52 percent of those new ship builds will rely on liquified natural gas (LNG) as a lower carbon fuel, while four ships are already using LNG. Shoreside electricity is currently fitted on 35 percent of all ships, which can be used in just 14 ports globally.

“We’ve advocated strongly that we need to investigate these alternative fuels,” said Donnie Brown, vice president of maritime policy at CLIA, on a media call, adding that cruises have joined the call for a $5 billion International Maritime Organization research and development fund to accelerate the development of zero emission fuels to be available by 2030.  

But the crux of CLIA’s report is this: it states that while there is no single alternative fuel source that’s available to all cruise ships at this time, cruise lines are pushing for their development and investing in newer ships with improved technologies — but it doesn’t address the litany of well documented environmental and social problems that have plagued cruise ships since the early 2000s and how those will be resolved.

It raises big questions over what is the bellwether benchmark.

“It’s what’s not on paper that’s important,” said Ross Klein, a veteran cruise industry expert and professor at Memorial University of Newfoundland. Advanced wastewater treatment systems’ issues with heavy metals and excess ammonium, the discharge of hazardous waste such as incinerator ash, and what happens to the waste from the scrubbers — those are all emissions, Klein said, adding that those problems remain equally valid today.

“They’re not using as a benchmark the failures that have been articulated back in the early 2000s by the Environmental Protection Agency,” said Klein. “Having a report that says they have these systems doesn’t tell us what the systems do, and doesn’t tell us whether they’ve addressed the known problems.”

Despite technical advances to reduce its footprint, cruising is “a major source of environmental pollution and degradation, with air, water, soil, fragile habitats and areas of wildlife affected,” and needs to be subject to more effective global monitoring and legislation, a new report published in Marine Pollution Bulletin recommends. It’s considered to be the most comprehensive analysis to date on the cruise industry’s environmental impact, combining more than 200 research papers on cruising in oceans and seas around the world.

“There are alternatives, there are possibilities to make cruise ships cleaner,” said Hrvoje Carić, an environment and sustainable development researcher at the Institute for Tourism in Croatia.

But with few regulations and weak enforcement in place when it comes to big cruise, which commands over 90 percent of the market and is foreign-flagged, and a lack of transparency on decades of environmental woes, it’s difficult to believe this sector will meet its climate action goals as early as 2030.

It Starts With the Carbon — But There’s More

A single passenger on a six-day cruise emits 1,600 kg of carbon dioxide, or over one ton, which is only slightly below the amount a passenger emits on a long-haul flight, according to a recent report from the World Travel & Tourism Council. The data also shows that the overall carbon intensity of a cruise ranks higher than that of a long-haul flight, and that cruises do not generally report their “scope three” emissions.

A total of 13 older ships were divested and seven were recycled as a result of the industry wide shutdown during Covid, according to the CLIA environmental report, to what signals the industry leaning towards newer and “cleaner” ships. The average age of the CLIA member fleet: 14 years.

Experts remain skeptical that the cruise industry is showing and meaning improvement at the level it could. 

That’s because some of the technologies that cruise lines are pointing to as an improvement have been reported as harming the environment, or are slow to be implemented, and regulation and enforcement are largely lacking. 

For instance, the use of exhaust gas cleaning systems or “scrubbers” — albeit installed by cruise lines to meet the standard of International Maritime Organization’s sulphur content limit in fuel starting January 2020 — has been found to result in scrubber discharge that contains toxic materials, which ends up in the sea and harms sea life, according to a first-ever study of this technology.

The number of ships with shore side electricity and the availability of ports with that infrastructure also remain staggeringly low for an industry of this scale. 

“We recognize the 14 ports worldwide, not even all the berths in those ports, is just a small fraction of the destinations to which cruise ships travel,” said CLIA’s Brown. “But, you know, we have had significant investment in port side infrastructure, and more will be required. There’s many partnerships ongoing between cruise lines in the ports and local authorities to increase the availability.”

Approximately 40 percent of Carnival’s global fleet is equipped with shoreside power, while another 20 percent are planned to be fitted by 2030.

“Of the over 700 ports worldwide that we visit, there are approximately 21 ports to date that have the infrastructure capable to provide shore power connections to our fleet,” Carnival said in an email statement.

CLIA said it expects shoreside power availability will likely dramatically improve over the next 10 years given the European Commission’s Fit for 55 legislation aiming to impose a zero emissions requirement on all ships passing through European ports.

And then there’s the use of copper in antifouling paint, which is the paint used to coat the bottom of ships so that marine organisms don’t grow there once the vessel is in water. A 16-month pilot study of ship traffic in the high season in the Krka Estuary, a marine protected area in Croatia, also authored by Carić, has just confirmed that copper concentrations in the water increased more than five times during the high tourism season.

The future increased use of liquefied natural gas as a lower carbon fuel has also been disputed by environmental groups that say is still a reliance on fossil fuel. LNG emits virtually zero sulfur, 85 percent fewer nitrogen oxide emissions and up to 20 percent less greenhouse gas, according to CLIA’s report.

CLIA’s director general in Europe, Ukko Metsola, said that the LNG infrastructure currently in place and being developed on ships could serve later to operate carbon neutral fuel, which explains why LNG needs to be understood as an important transitional fuel that is “best available today and a good stepping stone to the long term solutions which do not yet exist.”

Last but not least, there are leaders in the sector who reject the claim that decarbonizing cruise ships is hard, such as Norway’s Hurtigruten, known to be the first to operate battery-hybrid cruise ships.

“It’s Not the Size of the Ship, It’s the Destination”

When Covid hit, a handful of destinations announced they would not welcome back a similar sized cruise industry post pandemic. 

Key West residents voted in a referendum to permanently ban megaships from their port. Venice passed a law banning docking in the city, but allows cruising the fragile Venice lagoon to dock at Maghera port. The Cayman Islands’ government briefly mulled cruise visitor caps back in April 2021. And in September, the government of French Polynesia, where at least a third of visitors were cruisers pre pandemic, said “very large” cruise ships with capacity over 3,500 passengers are banned because they are “not suited” to their destination and “put stress on maritime infrastructure, services (transport and activities) as well as on the environment, especially in remote islands.”

An emergency stop in Key West by Royal Caribbean’s Serenade of the Seas in October served as an example of the localized problems that a big cruise ship can cause.

“What’s good for one port is not good for all ports,” said Arlo Haskell, co-founder of the Key West Committee for Safer Cleaner Ships. “In Key West, all of the advanced systems and green technologies in the world won’t solve the problem of a large ship coming into a small channel, scraping the bottom and causing this massive environmental disturbance that affects everyone down here.”

But will cruise lines commit to phase out building megaships moving forward as part of their climate and overall sustainability commitments? The annual report doesn’t address that.

“In the last couple of years, we’ve been experiencing kind of a return to the average, where you start to see that new ships tend to be more in mid range, but I don’t think CLIA has impact on that,” said Christian Savelli, vice president of business analytics and research at CLIA, on a media call.

The size of ship and “size” of destination are not necessarily determining factors of itinerary optimization, Carnival said in a statement.

Publicly available information on new builds shows more mid-sized ships than not, but simultaneously the megaships to be delivered between December and 2022 are also getting bigger — such as Carnival’s 6,000-passenger capacity and LNG-powered AIDAcosma, Royal Caribbean’s Wonder of the Seas, which will then become the largest cruise ship in the world with up to 6,988 passengers at full occupancy, Disney Wish with 4,000 guest capacity, and Carnival Celebration holding over 6,465 passengers.

“I think it’s important to point out that I don’t believe that there is a direct correlation between the size of the ship and the environmental impact or the sustainability piece,” said CLIA Europe’s Metsola on a media call, in response to Skift’s question on how CLIA reconciles the ongoing growth of megaships with the claim of sustainability. “I mean, I recognize that if we are talking about a very, very big cruise ship, you could argue that it is not necessarily sustainable to bring it to certain destinations.”

Metsola added that it was more about the age of the ship. “I think the big ship question is really more related to the areas of operation and the ports and destinations that they can be brought sustainably, from a sort of social sustainability point of view.”

But which part of the world isn’t vulnerable to the environmental and social impacts of megaships carrying passengers in the thousands at sea and into host cities and communities?

“The more people you cram on the ship, you lower the per passenger cost for operating that cruise,” said Klein. “So you become more efficient — economies of scale. Screw the port, we can now bring 15,000 passengers to that port, hey that’s their problem, that’s sustainable for us.”  

Cruise ships are the result of the American concept of mass tourism, Croatia Tourism Institute’s Carić said, adding that growth of ships in the United States then spill all over the world. 

“The big question that nobody’s asked: how much is enough?” said Carić. “We do have a problem with breaking points of tourism in the Mediterranean, not only from the perspective of environment, human health, crowding, but also the labor force.”

For every increase in tourism, the destination would have to import employment and for that employment to come in, it would need to build infrastructure for folks from other countries to come to work, Carić added.

“Ok so, what is the point of tourism, any tourism, not only cruise tourism, if you have to expand beyond the existing organic size of your community?”

Politics is Where the Rubber Meets the Road

CLIA said it supports the European Union’s legislation aiming to speed up the region’s decarbonization efforts by 2050. Starting in 2023, the International Convention for the Prevention of Pollution from Ships (MARPOL) will be requiring the larger ships of 5,000 tonnage and above to determine and file their annual carbon intensity indicator, on which they will be graded — a move to ensure ships are improving on their emissions.

But the crux of the problem is a lack of government regulation and enforcement and weak monitoring, primarily because of cruise lines being incorporated under foreign flags. International regulations such as MARPOL can only be enforced by the foreign flag state where companies are registered, such as The Bahamas, Panama or Liberia.

“No one monitors what a cruise ship discharges anywhere, except Alaska,” said Klein.   

It all boils down to political will. It’s no secret that cruise corporations and politicians have a close relationship, with cruise lines making heavy donations to campaigns and lobbying efforts. The pandemic has only made this link clearer.  

Key West’s Cleaner Safer Ships shared publicly on their website, following a Miami Herald report, that Governor DeSantis signed a bill opposing Key West’s cruise ban “after receiving almost $1 million in campaign contributions from Mark Walsh, the billionaire cruise pier operator who bankrolled the legislation.”

“The heart of the problem is in the United States and if you do not understand how the corporate cruise corporations are intertwined with the U.S. political system, then you are not really analyzing,” said Carić. “The pollution is just the consequence. The social labor issues, the health issues — all those are just consequences.”

The Global Cruise Activist Network, which formed during the cruise shutdown, said in a statement that it is calling on COP26 delegates for firmer measures to ensure that cruise ships in service anywhere in the world comply with standards that will achieve net zero emissions of greenhouse gases by the cruise industry by 2050.

With climate action at the center of attention in tourism but also globally across corporations in all sectors, the cruise industry is likely to gain even more attention in a post pandemic world as cruising resumes in larger volumes in 2022. 

Whether the beginning of the end of big cruise lies ahead — and yes, the size of the ship matters — will be up to destinations around the world brave enough to take a stand.

“What will make a difference is for governments to stand up and it has to be individual governments, standing up and saying — enough is enough, this is what is expected of you” said Klein, while expressing skepticism given the economics involved.

“They’ll threaten as they have in the past of going someplace else if any government says they’re going to regulate them. But you know, if you don’t have ports, you can’t go anywhere.”

UPDATED: This story has been updated with comments from the Global Cruise Activist Network.

Subscribe to Skift Pro

Subscribe to Skift Pro to get unlimited access to stories like these ($30/month)

Subscribe Now

Tags: coronavirus, coronavirus recovery, cruise industry, overtourism

Photo credit: A Disney ship docked in The Bahamas, pre-pandemic. David Nietzche / Flickr Commons

Up Next

Loading next stories