Sustainable ships: The world’s most eco-conscious cruises

Note to the Editor: Monthly Ticket is a CNN Travel series that spotlights some of the most interesting topics in the world of travel. In February, we’re exploring the people, places and journeys that are working to make tourism more sustainable.


For travelers who love to cruise but also consider themselves environmentally minded, the concept of “green” cruising can be confusing.

Indeed, sustainability challenges abound in an industry known for its carbon-spewing vessels, excessive waste production (which includes trash, sewage and gray water), and over-tourism of ports – not to mention environmental violations that have led to penalties well publicized.

However, as stricter regulations and global environmental benchmarks are set – and consumers increasingly demand cleaner and greener holidays – there are cruise companies out there that are doing the hard work to make experiences at sea make it much more sustainable.

“Every cruise line is investing in green initiatives, from looking at carbon footprints to filtering emissions. It’s the intention of every cruise line,” explains Colleen McDaniel, editor-in-chief of the cruise review website Cruise Critic.

And today, baseline sustainability practices like banning the reuse of plastic straws or linens aren’t enough to move the needle. The true innovators are the lines that are most in pursuit of decarbonisation targets through technological advances, particularly in relation to cleaner alternative fuels and greener port infrastructure.

The cruise industry carried nearly 30 million passengers and contributed over $154 billion to the global economy before the pandemic, in 2019; Despite the pandemic setbacks, it is on track to surpass those numbers by the end of the year. Pro-cruisers say that cruising can be a force for good, by supporting local economies and encouraging environmental and cultural awareness of yachtsmen.

However, the industry’s reliance on polluting heavy fuel oil (HFO) for its ships is at odds with the United Nations’ global net-zero emissions targets for 2050. Currently, cruise ships and other marine vessels are responsible for almost 3% of . global greenhouse emissions each year. Considered worse than flying in terms of carbon emissions per passenger, a Pacific Standard report showed that the average person’s carbon footprint triples in size when on a cruise.

Ocean-going member lines of the Cruise Lines International Association (CLIA), the cruise industry’s largest trade association, have pledged to achieve net-zero carbon emissions by 2050, and reduce carbon rates by 40% by 2030 (compared to levels 2008). ).

As those goals are being pursued, however, industry watchers say there is a lot of greenwashing. “A lot of the sustainability claims are just glasnost or the same kinds of ‘sustainability’ measures that have been happening for years in overland tourism,” says Marcie Keever, director of the environmental group Friends of the Earth , which expresses. annual cruise line “report card”.

Examples of this can be found in lines trying to swap carbon and sulfur emitting HFO for cleaner alternative fuels. Lower-carbon liquefied natural gas (LNG) is widely cited as a “stepping stone” fuel solution, with more than half of the new cruise ships on order and CLIA members featuring LNG as their primary propulsion.

However, environmentalists and scientists warn that LNG is a finite and polluting fossil fuel that could cause more environmental damage than HFO in the long term.

Simply put, “LNG is a dirty fuel,” says Dr. Mark Jacobson, director of the atmosphere/energy program at Stanford University, and author of “No Miracles Needed: How Today’s Technology Can Save Our Climate and Cleaning Our Air.” He says that while LNG’s “direct air pollution emissions are less than heavy fuel oil, they are still significant – and its emissions and upstream footprint are greater than heavy fuel,” due to factors such as practices unsustainable extraction (such as fracking) and methane by-products. .

Experts like Jacobson say the industry’s focus should be more fully on emerging zero-emission energy technologies. “The much cleaner solutions for ships are battery electricity and green hydrogen fuel cell electricity,” Jacobson says, noting “in either case, all emissions from the ship are eliminated – except for water vapor in the case of fuel cells hydrogen.”

CLIA reports that more than 15% of cruise ships debating in the next five years will be equipped to incorporate hydrogen fuel cells or electric batteries.

Another promising sustainability development is the industry’s move towards zero emission closures. Most of today’s new ships are being designed with the ability to power their fuel-burning engines and plug into the local grid while in port – reducing air pollution and related health issues in the process. The caveat: Only 29 of the 1,500-odd ports visited by CLIA ships currently offer compatible infrastructure.

While there may still be a long way to go – “cruising is always one of the dirtiest vacation options,” warns Keever – here are five cruise lines leading the pack with their eco-conscious initiatives .

Hurtigruten was the first cruise company in the world to phase out single-use plastics on board.

This 130-year-old Norwegian adventure travel company incorporates an ethos of sustainability at its core. As a leader in green energy, Hurtigruten phased out HFO for its small ship fleet more than a decade ago, in favor of alternative, greener fuels such as marine gas oil and biofuels.

In 2019, they launched the world’s first hybrid battery electric cruise ship (and are in the process of converting the rest of their cruise fleet to hybrid battery power), and have plans for the world’s first zero-emissions cruise ship zero by 2030.

They also enabled shore power connectivity across the fleet to eliminate emissions while in port, and were the first cruise company to phase out single-use plastics on board.

The first cruise line to achieve Green Sea certification, Ponant also offsets 100% of its emissions.

French luxury line Ponant rolled out a hybrid cruise ship that would reduce emissions (running on LNG and electric battery power), the 245-passenger Le Commandant Charcot, in 2021, and has plans for a “zero impact” ship by 2025.

The first cruise line to achieve Green Sea certification, Ponant also offsets 100% of its emissions.

In addition, all Ponant ships are equipped with shore-to-ship power connections in port; stop the line using single-use plastics; and environmental impact studies are carried out before any itinerary is designed.

Star Clippers tall ships operate exclusively on wind power up to 80% of the time.

Sometimes, when it comes to sustainability, what’s old is new again.

Monaco-based sailing company Star Clippers operates three 166- to 227-passenger tall sailing ships that operate exclusively on wind power up to 80% of the time (and otherwise use low-sulfur gas oil).

Small ship size means less overall impact, as well as access to less touristy ports – in Costa Rica, for example, Star Clippers was the first cruise line certified as “Pura Vida Promise” – approved by the Costa Tourism Board Rican in recognition of their eco-credibility.

Havila Voyages hybrid ships can operate on battery power for periods of up to four hours.

This Norwegian cruise line, which started in 2022, has launched two of four planned hybrid ships running on the Norwegian coast.

Havila Voyages has the largest passenger ship batteries at sea, allowing its ships to travel – for periods of up to four hours – into the country’s UNESCO-protected fjords, quietly and emission-free.

In addition, the batteries can be recharged in port with clean hydropower energy from the local grid, and are strong enough to power the ships while they are docked. Although the ships also currently use LNG power, Havila aims to eventually run emission-free, with vessels designed to transition to hydrogen power once the technology is available.

Explora Journeys will launch the world's first LNG-powered vessel with hydrogen fuel cells in 2027.

This new luxury cruise brand from Swiss shipping company MSC Group launches this summer, but will really make waves in 2027 when it debuts the world’s first LNG-powered vessel with hydrogen fuel cells, along with methane slip reduction technology.

In partnership with Italian shipbuilders Fincantieri, the flagship Explora Journeys ships (the first of two planned for the new line) will reduce greenhouse emissions while at sea and emit little more than water vapor and heat when idle in port.

Other brand highlights include a ban on single-use plastics and underwater noise reduction certification (so as not to disturb marine wildlife).

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