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Cruise industry tries to become more sustainable

July 26, 2023

Progress towards making cruise ships climate neutral is too slow, environmentalists say. A lack of alternative fuels is just part of the problem.

A cruise ship sails in Rijeka, Croatia.
Cruise ships have become popular again after the pandemicImage: Nel Pavletic/PIXSELL/DeFodi Images/picture alliance

If all goes according to the cruise ship industry's plans, the first climate-neutral passenger cruise vessels will set sail in 2030. In recent years, the popular form of mass tourism has come under sharp criticism for generating waste and acting as major polluter due to the high emission of greenhouse gases.

Environmental groups continue to put cruise ship industry players to the test, despite the sector's plans for a greener future. The Nature and Biodiversity Conservation Union (NABU), for example, says progress is not being made fast enough when it comes to reducing emissions. The German environmental protection association releases an annual ranking of European cruise ship companies' climate protection measures. This year, it concluded that "cruising and climate protection don't go together." NABU surveyed 13 major cruise companies about the efforts they were making in terms of climate protection. Even those that ranked highest didn't score very well.

The cruise ship Aida mira in the port of Palma de Mallorca.
The cruise industry is under fire for its high greenhouse gas emissionsImage: Andrea Warnecke/tmn/picture alliance

Improvements to new ships

According to NABU, cruise ship companies can't afford to not reduce greenhouse gas emissions. However, instead of focusing on improvements made to cruise ships that are currently in operation, many shipping companies are focusing on improving new ships which have not yet hit the water. As a result, "emissions in the cruise industry as a whole continue to rise," said NABU shipping expert Sönke Diesener.

Similarly, the international environmental association Friends of the Earth hasn't spared its criticism. A cruise ship passenger creates eight times as much greenhouse gas emissions as someone vacationing on land, according to a recent study.

"Cruise lines like to boast about cutting plastic pollution and using less energy on board," said Friends of the Earth shipping expert Marcie Keever in a press release. "But they ignore the factor that has the greatest impact on CO2 emissions — the massive and poor quality of the fuel they use."

It's time for the industry to take its responsibility to the planet seriously, she said.

According to NABU, half of current cruise ships still use heavy fuel oil, which has a particularly poor environmental record. At the very least, the switch to marine diesel and the installation of soot particle filters and catalytic converters should have happened long ago, say environmentalists.

A cruise ship on the water with a cloudy sky above.
A person on a cruise creates eight times as much emissions as a person vacationing on landImage: NTB/picture alliance

Yet there are other fuel types available. Norwegian shipping company Havila Voyages, for example, is using more liquified natural gas. "In our view, this is the right choice at the moment," says company CEO Bent Martini.

Helge Grammerstorf, Germany director of the Cruise Lines International Association (CLIA), agrees. The industry wants to move away from heavy fuel oil, he recently stressed at a session of the German parliament's committee on tourism. Liquefied natural gas offers "real advantages" here, he said.

Other German cruise ship companies are also making environmental pledges. Wybcke Meier, the chairwoman of the executive board of TUI Cruises GmbH, has reiterated the company's plan to operate its entire fleet in a climate-neutral manner by 2050. She said that the first climate-neutral cruises will be on offer by 2030. But she added that it was currently impossible to say when heavy oil will be a thing of the past. It's also a question of the availability of alternative fuels, she explained.

According to Sönke Diesener from NABU, however, liquified natural gas isn't that much better. For years, experts have pointed out that it is by no means the climate-friendly option that the industry portrays it to be. Liquified natural gas emits the greenhouse gas methane, which NABU says is 80 times more harmful to the climate than carbon dioxide in the short term.

Climate-neutral thanks to green methanol

Green methanol is currently considered to be the most promising fuel according to researchers at the Öko-Institut, a non-profit research and consultancy institution in Germany. If methane is produced using renewable energy and carbon dioxide extracted from the atmosphere, it could power cruise ships in a climate-neutral way, explains Nora Wissner, one of the authors of an Öko-Institut study. However, the main problem is that green methanol is currently not being produced in sufficient quantities. "As things stand, it's not possible to make a cruise ship run in a climate-neutral way." 

There is also the issue of ship production. Building a cruise ship takes several years and costs hundreds of millions of euros. As a result, a ship's lifetime is expected to last several decades. In light of the rapid developments taking place in the field of alternative fuels, it is almost impossible to keep an entire fleet up to date.

At least certain shipping companies are starting to rely on green methanol for their new vessels. TUI Cruises and Norwegian Cruise Lines, for example, have ordered ships that rely on this option, says NABU. "There are the first promising announcements that give hope for environmentally friendly cruise shipping."

This article was translated from German.

Jonas Martiny -  Travel Online-Autor
Jonas Martiny Reporter, correspondent