When it comes to sustainability, the cruise industry suffers from a PR problem. The dominant image, certainly in European media, is one of small floating cities belching out fumes and dumping tons of waste into unsullied waters. Whether a member of the public believes this picture or not, the industry doesn’t always do enough to dispel the notion, which has a rather detrimental impact on its appeal.

Getting hold of information on the sustainable practices and green technologies employed by a cruise operator is not always easy. It often involves piecing together scraps of information from different press releases, interview transcripts and regulatory filings. In June, the Cruise Lines International Association (CLIA) had to once again explain why it had chosen to withdraw cooperation with environmental organisation Friends of the Earth (FOE) on its cruise industry report card, which rates the environmental credentials of each cruise line.

“Once again, it is regrettable that FOE has issued a report on the cruise industry that is misleading and inaccurate,” said CLIA in a statement to the press. “Through CLIA, the industry has offered numerous times to meet with FOE. However, our requests have either been put off or outright ignored.

“While we recognise that this is largely a fundraising effort for FOE, we also believe that they do a disservice to the public in providing inaccurate information.”

Whatever the rights and wrongs of this argument, CLIA’s unwillingness to volunteer information, unfortunately, only fuels the cruise industry’s reputation for being opaque and inward-looking. This is a great shame, as the FOE report card, as well as highlighting areas that need to be improved, shows just how well certain operators have been doing.

“The cruise industry is ahead in many technologies,” says Hans Eivind Siewers, segment director for passenger ships and ro-ro at DNV GL. “LNG, scrubbers and batteries – I would say they are making much more effort than most of the other segments. But still, they get a beating in some parts of the media around the world.”

Forward through technology

It seems as if the rate of technological advancement in the industry has increased rapidly over the past few years, with new systems and concepts being deployed all the time. Not surprisingly, given its resource base, Carnival Corporation has played a leading role in the research and development of new technologies. Its proprietary scrubber system, unveiled in 2013, was the first to be able to scrub sulphur, nitrogen and particulate matter from exhaust in a marine setting without taking up an inordinate amount of space. Making the technology work across the fleet is an ongoing process of trial and error, although the technology has already helped Carnival achieve its target of a 20% reduction in CO2 emissions a full year ahead of schedule, in 2014.

“What most people don’t understand – or perhaps don’t realise – is that you can’t just take a piece of technology that works well for a land-based operation and expect it to work [at sea],” said Elaine Heldeweir, Carnival’s sustainability director, in an interview with The New Economy. “You have to marinise it, adjust it, tweak it; you have to do more research and development. For what we are working on, there is no magic bullet […] that fits a fleet of 100 ships.”

"The cruise industry is ahead in many technologies. LNG, scrubbers and batteries – I would say they are making much more effort than most of the other segments. But still, they get a beating in some parts of the media around the world."

Royal Caribbean’s Harmony of the Seas, launched in June 2015, is 20% more fuel efficient than its sister ship Allure of the Seas, which came into service in 2013. The newer ship is fitted with two Wärtsilä hybrid scrubber systems, which – according to data gathered from those already in service – remove more than 98% of SOx. Harmony of the Seas represents the biggest deployment of scrubbers on any ship so far.

This technology works in tandem with an innovative air lubrication system first employed on 2014’s Quantum of the Seas that creates tiny air bubbles that stick to the bottom of the hull. The ship effectively floats on a bed of air, which means less fuel is required to propel it forward. Although the technological principal is quite old, nobody had been able to make it commercially viable until now. It was difficult to get the bubbles to stay on the underside of the ship and not drift up to the sides until recent advances in computational fluid dynamics enabled more precise calculations.

The technology has had another, unintended, consequence. “These bubbles travel along the bottom of the ship, and when they go towards the stern, we find that the layer of air is essentially an air pillow,” Richard Pruitt, vice-president of safety and environmental stewardship, has told journalists. “So it actually reduces the noise of the propellers, which throw off a pressure pulse like a little a sonic wave in the water when they spin. The air bubbles act like a pillow so the sound wave is compressing the air rather than striking the metal.”

It’s not all about cutting-edge technology, however. A number of operators have made rather unglamorous but highly effective modifications in attempts to make their operations more sustainable. Princess Cruises, for example, has invested heavily in retrofitting its ships to be able to make use of shore power at the cost of around $1 million a vessel. It even teamed up with Holland America Line, the government of British Columbia and power company BC Hydro to build shore power-generation facilities at the port of Vancouver, at the cost of $9 million.

Disney was the highest placed operator on the FOE scorecard, achieving an overall grade of A- for a number of innovative energy-saving features.

Naturally occurring condensation from air-conditioning units is recycled to supply fresh water for use in the laundry facilities, for instance, saving an estimated 30 million gallons of water a year. All of the cooking oil is recycled or turned into biodiesel fuel, and excess heat from power generation is used to power evaporators, which helps turn seawater into potable water. It was also the only cruise operator that responded to FOE’s request for information, making it the only one to receive an A for transparency (all others received an F grade).

The commercial advantage

The fact that genuine progress is being made by a number of cruise operators again raises the question of why they aren’t keener to make their environmental data public. One would have thought it could be a great competitive advantage, in a time in which passengers are increasingly mindful of the impact their choices have on the planet.

The consolidated nature of the industry may well play a part. For example, Carnival-owned brands are among some of the highest rated on the FOE scorecard (Cunard, Holland America) but also the lowest (P&O). Perhaps CEOs of highly rated brands are reluctant to shout too loudly, as it would shed light on the performance of their lower-ranking sister companies? That might explain why Disney, a stand-alone company, is the only one to comply with the FOE. Or perhaps customers in certain geographies care more about sustainability than others, and, therefore, apply varying levels of pressure on operators to innovate? AIDA’s decision to build two LNG-powered ships, for instance, was partially influenced by clear signals from the German market.

“We have commitments and standards at a corporate level but each brand, depending on the area in which they are deployed, may see some things as more important than others,” says Tom Strang, senior vice-president of maritime affairs at Carnival. “I don’t want to make it sound like we pay more attention to one thing in one place – the fundamental understanding is that we are trying to reduce the impact in the areas in which we operate at all times.

"When will the media be happy? When will you and me, the public, be happy? I would guess that we have to see something like an environmentally neutral ship – and maybe in 2050 or 2070, we will get there."

“But we might be trialling things – recycling programmes, for example – on certain ships because you can get the recycling done onshore and can’t get it done elsewhere. Of course, as we invest in new ships, we’ll always try to make sure we have reliable technology in all areas.”

Need for regulatory change

Marcie Keever, oceans and vessels programme director at FOE, is pleased with the progress that individual operators are making, but believes regulatory change is necessary for all ships to be lifted. Some of the most significant developments in recent years, such as the widespread installation of scrubbers and commissioning of LNG-powered new-builds, were triggered in part by regulatory necessity – in these cases, it was the International Maritime Organization’s binding decision to cut the maximum sulphur content of bunker fuel to 0.5% from 3.5% as of 2020.

“We sent out an action alert encouraging people to write to the US Environmental Protection Agency asking that they update the standards for sewerage treatment,” she says. “These standards are more than 35 years old and have not been updated. Not only do we need a transparency push from the US Government, but we also need an effort to improve the regulations, because that is the main reason you are seeing grades improve, especially in air-pollution reduction.

“You have the emission control area in North America, meaning cleaner fuel is now required. You’re seeing a push towards scrubbers – why was that? We think that’s a first step, and that other particulate filters and pollution-reduction technology is next.”

Siewers at DNV GL, on the other hand, believes that the transparency argument is a lot of fuss over nothing and that actually, not only is the industry a technology leader, but that it also communicates its message well. He believes that parts of the media have gotten stuck in a narrative that no longer reflects reality – or, perhaps, never did.

“When will the media be happy?” he asks. “When will you and me, the public, be happy? I would guess that we have to see something like an environmentally neutral ship – and maybe in 2050 or 2070, we will get there. That is the direction we are currently going in. How long it will take, we don’t know – but that’s the direction.”