Is this the beginning of the end for bunker fuel? When, in June last year, Carnival Corporation announced it had ordered four ships that run entirely on liquefied natural gas (LNG), this might have seemed an appropriate inference.

The next-generation vessels, an industry first, will feature dual-powered hybrid engines, which use LNG to power the ships in port and at sea. Due for delivery between 2019 and 2022, they have been heralded as a major environmental breakthrough.

"It’s certainly the most clean-burning fuel option we have – there are no sulphur dioxide emissions at all, and close to a 100% reduction in particular matter," explains John Haeflinger, vice-president of maritime policy and analysis at Carnival Corporation. "We’re very excited about it and we think ten years from now LNG will probably be the norm for cruise ship construction."

Whether or not his forecast comes to fruition, one thing’s for sure – traditional fuels, used in the conventional ways, are no longer a tenable option. The global sulphur emissions limit (currently at 3.5%) is set to fall to 0.5% by 2020, and already stands at 0.1% within 200 miles of the North American coastline. Cruise lines must reduce air pollution, whichever way they can, and Carnival is no exception.

"What is going on is industry-wide – all the lines are focused on very similar issues and we know we’re all in this together," says Haeflinger. "I expect a lot of the advances will be applied across the maritime industry, because we all have the same impetus. We operate in the sea and we need to maintain it."


As the person in charge of health, environment, safety and security (HESS) policy, Haeflinger has had a year to remember. He has overseen not just the movement towards LNG, but also the development of ten new goals that will shape Carnival’s environmental strategy in years to come (see image, right).

Announced in September 2015, the ‘2020 Sustainability Goals’ are intended to help the company reduce its environmental footprint, improve the health, safety and security of guests and crew members, and promote sustainable practices throughout its supply chain.

Six of these goals are strictly environmental, covering emissions and wastewater reduction and improvements in overall efficiency. The other four pertain to its workforce and its engagement with local communities. All ten, however, position Carnival as a company concerned not just with its own interests, but also with how its business practices impact the outside world.

"Prior to this, we had really only one public sustainability goal and it was related to our carbon dioxide emissions," says Haeflinger. "But because we had a lot of internal goals, we felt it was the right time to extend their visibility publicly. So we spent a good couple of months in open dialogue with our management teams across all our cruise line brands, choosing the types of goals that are most aligned with our business strategy."

As the self-proclaimed largest leisure and travel company in the world (it has ten brands, 100 ships and 11 million annual guests), Carnival has long been at the vanguard of the industry’s efforts to clean up its act. In 2013, it received a Clean Tech Award, in honour of its new exhaust-filtration systems. And in 2014, it met its carbon dioxide reduction goal – to cut emissions by 20% – a year ahead of schedule.

The 2020 goals, however, mark a commitment not just to sustainability, but to a new climate of transparency. With today’s guests more eco-conscious than ever before, there are calls for greater openness about cruise lines’ environmental impacts. And cruise lines are responding in kind, very publicly jostling to be the cleanest, the greenest, and the most sustainability-conscious.

"We as a company are being more open and transparent about operational performance with not only shareholders, but also all the other stakeholders, whether it’s the environmental NGOs, or investment groups focused on sustainability."

As Haeflinger explains, "We as a company are being more open and transparent about operational performance with not only shareholders, but also all the other stakeholders, whether it’s the environmental NGOs, or investment groups focused on sustainability. Over the past ten years, it has been interesting to see the focus move to factors beyond the financial performance of a company."

This being the case, Carnival’s 2020 goals are not just about meeting existing targets. Regulatory compliance is one thing, being known for your exemplary environmental stewardship quite another.

On the other hand, emissions targets have certainly played their part in some of the company’s key investments. Its exhaust-filtration systems, for instance, were installed just in time for January 2015, when the North American emissions control area tightened its limit from 1.0 to 0.1%.

"We’ve invested several hundred million dollars in what is essentially a research and development effort to create exhaust gas-cleaning systems," says Haeflinger. "Technically this not a new technology – it’s been available in landside power plants for many years – but the technology requires a lot of space that ships don’t have. So we took the decision a few years ago to develop technology for maritime use, and I think you could argue that Carnival’s been leading the chase to be able to deliver reduced emissions through this investment."

Scrubbers: need to know

Otherwise known as ‘scrubbers’, the equipment works by removing sulphur, nitrogen and particulate matter from the fuel, bringing emissions to well below the limit. They provide a cost-effective alternative to low-sulphur fuels, which can be untenably expensive.

At present, they are being retrofitted on a high proportion of Carnival’s vessels; by the end of this year, around half its fleet will feature scrubbers, and the number is expected to rise to more than 70 in 2017. The technology is being modified on the fly, tweaked wherever possible to improve its performance and reliability. Haeflinger feels that, until Carnival is completely turned over as an LNG fleet, exhaust filtration will prove the most viable solution.

After all, running a fully LNG fleet remains a far-off dream for now. Unlike standard low-sulphur fuels, LNG cannot be used in a typical diesel engine, meaning the ships would require some expensive retrofitting. There is also the issue of fuel availability, with the appropriate infrastructure confined to a select few ports.

"A challenge for us is that our ships don’t have predefined routes, like ferries or even larger LNG tankers that go from specific port to specific port," says Haeflinger. "We have taken a very proactive step with respect to building LNG-only ships, because now we have to ensure that these ships have the infrastructure to be fuelled."

Luckily, times are changing. With LNG-fuelled ferries already in operation, and with the 2020 sulphur emissions cap edging closer, the European Union is beginning to invest heavily in LNG infrastructure. Most likely, this will have a knock-on effect on the cruise industry; once the port infrastructure is there, switching to LNG will seem like a safer investment.

For the time being, LNG remains a bold step into the unknown and there can be no doubt that Carnival’s move has piqued the industry’s attention. However, this is not to downplay the importance of its other sustainability goals, which are laudable in their own right.

Waste material

Alongside its strategic energy reduction and conservation initiatives, the company is working to reduce waste generated by shipboard operations (slashing it by 5% relative to its 2010 baseline). It is also looking to improve water use efficiency by 5%, in part through guest education initiatives; to install more advanced wastewater purification systems; and to increase the number of its ships with cold-ironing capability. This will allow ships to connect to an electrical grid when in port.

"We are focusing on a range of retrofit actions, including modifications in heating and air conditioning, LED lighting, hull coatings to reduce the amount of friction and modifications to the propulsion systems to make them more energy efficient," says Haeflinger. "We’ve made some retrofits of advanced wastewater treatment plans and there are probably half a dozen other things. So the focus has been primarily on energy but also on waste stream improvement."

On top of that, the company will be implementing better health and safety practices across its brands, ensuring its vendors meet a strict code of conduct, and engaging more productively with the communities near its ports of call.

The next five years will see clear changes as Carnival scrabbles to meet its goals. That said, Haeflinger feels that most of these efforts will fly under holidaymakers’ radar. Any environmental initiative, done correctly, may disrupt the status quo, but it shouldn’t disrupt the cruise guests’ experience.

"They may not notice that much of a difference – hopefully they’re going to have a great vacation," he remarks. "So it’s not something immediately perceptible to the guest but there’s so much effort going on behind the scenes. In five years time, we’ll be exceeding their expectations, and we’ll be doing it in a more sustainable way than we are today."