Before the pandemic, the global cruise industry was positively booming. Figures shows that in 2019 the sector hosted a staggering 29.7 million passengers, with projections at the time suggesting it would rise to 32 million in 2020 to be worth $150bn.

It should have been a year furnished with headlines of record-breaking success. Instead, it was one littered with images of ships in quarantine, ambulances queuing shoreside to offload the ill and, sadly, even passenger deaths. At one point, among the geographical list of countries hit by Covid-19, the British-registered Diamond Princess topped it with registered cases – ultimately recording 700 ill and unfortunately nine deaths. It was a devastating time that has left the industry reeling for months.

Thankfully, today the situation has much improved, with cruises fast becoming the holiday destination of choice once more. But, as it begins to resume ‘normal’ operations, concerns have quickly returned around the sector’s sustainability credentials. Environmental groups have turned their gaze back to vessels and the perceived damage they can do to the climate crisis.

At the end of 2021, one academic study produced a damming number of claims. Published in the Maritime Pollution Bulletin, work by a group of scientists and researchers concluded the negative impacts of the sector on the environment and human health were on the rise and called for greater regulation. The group said its research showed that, despite technical advances and some surveillance programmes, the industry “remains a major source of air, water (fresh and marine) and land pollution affecting fragile habitats, areas and species, and a potential source of physical and mental human health risks”.

Countering the claims

While it’s likely that many cruise operators would refute that their operations and vessels have environmental and sustainability concerns at their heart, it’s hard to counter some of the statistics. According to the study, a large cruise ship can produce as much carbon as 12,000 cars; passengers enjoying a seven-day cruise on some routes produce the same CO2 as the average European in a year; and some liners generate more than a tonne of waste per day.

Speaking to World Cruise Industry Review about the claim made by Friends of the Earth that cruise ships, and by association the sector, is a “catastrophe” for the environment, Wassim Daoud, head of corporate social responsibility and sustainability at cruise operator Ponant, says the company recognised the need for it, and the industry, to change. But, he adds, the sector knows that too. “I am participating in different sustainable working groups of cruise lines and can confirm that all of them are aware of their environmental responsibility and are working hard to considerably reduce their impact,” he says.

In recent years, regulators have also stepped up their approach to environmental impacts, issuing fines and even bringing criminal action against some operators for regulatory breaches. In 2017 Americanowned Princess Cruise Lines received a whopping $40m fine – the largest ever – for what US authorities said was a “deliberate dumping of oil-contaminated waste from one of its vessels, and intentional acts to cover it up”. Last year, the company was fined a further $1m by the US Department of Justice for breaching the terms of probation after the initial violation.

However, despite the less favourable headlines, there is a lot of good happening in the industry, as Daoud alludes to. “Innovation and engineering are at the heart of the industry’s vision for net-zero carbon cruising,” says Kelly Craighead, president of Cruise Lines International Association (CLIA). Releasing the results of its 2022 report on the industry’s environmental technologies and practices, CLIA said the sector was making progress towards global net-zero carbon cruising by 2050.

“The cruise industry continues to lead the way by investing billions to incorporate new technologies, accelerate development of sustainable marine fuels – in particular, engines capable of using sustainable marine fuels – and enable shoreside electricity connectivity on existing and new ships,” says Craighead. For Craighead, these steps form the fundamental building blocks for the decarbonisation of global shipping.

In February 2022, the Mediterranean Shipping Company (MSC) – through MSC Cruises and its new luxury brand Explora Journeys – became the first major cruise operator to join Europe’s Green Marine initiative. Launched in 2020, it is a voluntary environmental certification programme modelled on the North American initiative, which has been operational for the past 15 years and has more than 430 participants. Aimed at shipowners, the scheme assesses the progress being made towards sustainability by measuring eight indicators: aquatic invasive species, pollutant air emissions (SOx and PM), pollutant air emissions (NOx), greenhouse gas emissions, oily discharge, waste management, underwater noise and responsible ship recycling.

“Even while we tackled the many challenges of the past two years, we never lost sight of our responsibilities in the long term,” said MSC’s executive chairman of its cruise division, Pierfrancesco Vago. “In line with our commitment to sustainability and our pledge to reach net zero emissions by 2050, the Green Marine Europe Label will help us demonstrate our progress and share this with our guests, the communities that we serve and all other stakeholders,” he adds.

A passion that runs deep

For Ponant, a commitment to protecting the world in which it operates is long held. “Ponant has been committed to responsible tourism, and purposeful voyages of exploration, for 35 years,” says Daoud. The company was founded by sailors keen to share their passion for the sea. It has taken its guests to what it calls “the most secret places on the planet, where nature reigns supreme”.

“This choice brings with it responsibilities towards the environment and the indigenous people encountered,” Daoud continues. “Beyond the more responsible exercise of the seafaring profession and the commitment to promoting a more sustainable tourism, the company aims to invest more efforts in areas that are close to its heart: this means preserving the oceans and the polar regions and encouraging exchanges between peoples in order to continue to create value in a changing world.”

The company, which specialises in cruises and exploration away from the more popular tourist routes and destinations, was the first European shipowner to join the Green Marine certification programme in North America in 2019 and became the first international operator to join its European equivalent. Ponant says such moves “reaffirm its environmental commitment” as it continues to “innovative solutions” across its fleet.

As part of that commitment, Ponant has invested over $1.1bn in the construction of its fleet. “Today, we have the most up-to-date cruise fleet in the industry, with 13 ships. Engines are powered by electricity from generators, which improves energy efficiency and reduces CO2 emissions,” says Daoud. In 2021, the company “broke new ground” by launching the world’s only luxury icebreaker, a hybrid electric highexploration polar vessel powered by liquefied natural gas (LNG) and low-sulphur marine gasoil (LS MGO).

“Le Commandant Charcot became the first ship flying the French flag to reach the geographic North Pole, on 6 September 2021,” exults Daoud. “On board, two laboratories are equipped to accommodate scientific expeditions… In addition to the ship’s minimal environmental impact, it is her ability to navigate through the ice that makes Le Commandant Charcot so unique.”

As well as the LNG technology – which cuts emissions by more than 20% – the vessel was the first to be completely free of single-use plastic and is equipped with an on-board Nordaq filtration system that enables drinking water to be produced from seawater and distributed by water fountains and it has a system to refill and cap recyclable glass bottles.

“Le Commandant Charcot has been eco-designed to employ the latest green technologies, starting with LNG, the cleanest fuel available today,” says Daoud. Part of that process is learning how best to bunker the ship – a process that has developed many times since the vessel’s launch in July 2021 following several years of analysis, engineering and trials to find the safest and most efficient method.

The vessel uses a membrane fuel tank system, never used before on cruise ships, meaning high-pressure LNG tanks mould themselves to the shape of the hull and provides the ship with up to two months’ autonomy on natural gas. Since they optimise the space, the fuel carrying capacity increases to 4,500m3. The company says such innovation paves the way for new natural gas propulsion methods that are more respectful of the environment and can help to meet the CO2 reduction targets as set by the Paris Agreement.

The engines run on electricity supplied by six generators and are stored in batteries with an increased capacity of 4,500kW, thereby optimising energy efficiency and saving fuel. This reserve also enables the ship to sail quietly with no emissions for almost an hour – which is useful when navigating in some wildlife-rich environments. “Minimising the environmental impact of its business is a priority for Ponant,” says Daoud, “and LNG is currently the most eco-friendly marine fuel available. Switching to this energy source totally eliminates SOx emissions and reduces NOx emissions by 85%.”

As well as being an LNG/battery-powered, icebreaking vessel, Le Commandant Charcot is also home to research facilities with dedicated dry and wet labs; the hull has spaces for measuring instruments and a moon pool that enables certain samples to be taken. “Le Commandant Charcot offers a new platform for observation, research and analysis to scientists around the world, who will be able to study these difficult-toaccess areas by regularly collecting data in these zones,” adds Daoud. In 2022, it hosted more than 20 scientific teams from different nationalities on-board.

“While some cruise ships can get close to the sea ice, only the newest Ponant vessel is able to move safely between sheets of ice,” according to Daoud. This is testament to the vessel being the first passenger polar exploration ship with a Polar Class 2 icebreaking rating.

“We are committed to our guests, our partners and the scientists to a more inspiring cruise industry that offers transformative experiences rooted in protecting the ecosystems that sustain us,” he concludes. “The new generation of vessels has better environmental performances: energy efficiency, alternatives fuels, shore connection, sewage.”

Navigate change

It’s a story many in the global cruise industry want to be able to share in the coming years. According to CLIA, the introduction of rules in 2020 by the International Maritime Organisation that require the global shipping industry to cut sulphur content of fuel oil from 3.5% to 0.5%, resulted in cruise liner operators investing more than $25bn in new vessels with improved environmental performance.

Last year, CLIA said the industry was reducing the carbon footprint of ships while at berth and at sea, investing in advanced environmental technologies and partnering with cities and ports on sustainable destination management. “By equipping cruise ships with the ability to connect shoreside electricity, and using it where available, the cruise industry is prepared to eliminate emissions while at port for the benefit of local communities,” it said.

The number of cars producing the equivalent amount of carbon as one large cruise ship.
Maritime Pollution Bulletin

Despite the attention-grabbing and often negative headlines, there is a story to tell: one where the industry is no longer the arch nemesis of those wanting a cleaner, greener world. The work by Ponant, MSC and a large contingent of the industry is advancing apace, and so too is the ambition to become a more sustainable global stakeholder.