Are Cruise Ships Bad For the Environment?

Are Cruise Ships Bad For The Environment - Hurtigruten's new ship, Roald Amundsen

French company Ponant Cruises was fined $70,000 this week for the unintentional grounding of its ship L’Austral on a sub-Arctic island just off New Zealand in January 2017. The ship’s captain, Regis Daumesnil, was fined an additional $30,000 for his role in the incident.

It’s the kind of occurrence that grabs headlines and gets the media talking about the cruise industry as a whole and how it is ‘bad’ for the environment. The debate usually revolves around how the bigger ships can disgorge up to 5,000 passengers at a time on ports that are already bursting at the seams, making life uncomfortable for all concerned (including the 5,000 in question).

And, yes, when the big ships swamp some of the places they visit, it is pretty much ‘bad’ for the local environment in every sense.

Venice is already in a major political battle between local tourist businesses and environmentalists to ban all ships of 100,000 tons and bigger in the city itself while Croatian hot-spot Dubrovnik this week announced a restriction on all vessels, insisting it will take only two per day, instead of five or six, amid claims the Old Town is suffering from jams of the non-preserve variety (some fans of the TV programme Game Of Thrones – which is partly filmed in Dubrovnik – insist they may also be to blame, though).

It all adds up to a muddy picture of Tourism vs Ecosystem, Nature against Modernity. But you could be forgiven for thinking cruising is always the villain of the piece in this instance. Certainly, it hasn’t helped itself in some respects. Each of Royal Caribbean, Norwegian Cruise Line and Princess Cruises – the latter as recently as 2016 – have been fined for illegally dumping untreated waste at sea, to perpetuate the idea that these companies act in environmentally-unfriendly ways.

Yet the cruise business as a whole has an excellent overall record of proper operations, especially when you consider there are now more than 220 ships operating worldwide at any given time. For the handful of isolated ‘bad actors’, there are several hundred ‘good guys’ who all abide by the rules and continue to look for ways to make themselves more thoughtful and carbon-neutral.

Artist impression of Virgin Voyages' Scarlet Lady

Virgin Voyages’ Scarlet Lady

Ship propulsion is steadily moving into a new age of clean energy and away from traditional diesel-engined monoliths. Richard Branson has insisted his Virgin Voyages line – which launches in 2020 – will focus heavily on sustainability, including being the first to adopt the Climeon Ocean system, which turns waste heat into clean-burning energy, drastically reducing the pollutants ships have been known for.

Virgin aren’t alone in changing the traditional model of cruise power either. Norwegian expedition specialist Hurtigruten has teamed up with Rolls Royce to environmentally upgrade its whole fleet to a new hybrid source of power using liquefied natural gas (LNG), as well as constructing their next two ships entirely with the new system.

Perhaps more surprisingly, the behemoth Carnival Corporation is currently leading the way in ships completely powered by LNG, which is hailed as the world’s cleanest burning fossil fuel, with nearly zero emissions. The first vessel, the ultra-modern AIDAnova of AIDA Cruises, set sail in August and the other six Carnival brand gas-powered ships will be launched by 2022, including two for Costa Cruises, two for Carnival Cruises themselves and one for Britain’s P&O.

Carnival’s total investment in these new, clean-propulsion vessels is close to $7.5billion (and yes, that’s billion with ‘b’), which is no small outlay, and proof positive the cruise world is dedicated to getting its house in order.

Others are looking at solar power to cut their carbon emissions. Japanese company Peace Boat, which runs educational cruises, is in the process of creating a whole new generation of vessel that will be powered by a mixture of solar panels, sails and LNG, ensuring an even greener environmental profile, and you can be sure others will be paying attention if this experiment is a success.

Every new ship that now leaves the shipyards of the world – whether powered by LNG or not – is also immensely cleaner and more responsible than its older brethren in terms of how much of its waste is recycled and cleaned aboard, before being offloaded back in port. In fact, waste management is now a full-time position on most ships, in much the same way as Chief Engineer and Radio Operator is.

Carnival Vista Cruise Ship

Carnival Vista

In 2016, the Carnival Vista became the company’s first ship to receive the ECO Notation designation from maritime classification society Lloyd’s Register, which highlights ships that exceed current maritime environmental regulations. Vista’s sister ship, Carnival Horizon, added to the line’s ECO awards in April.

More vessels also now plug into sources of power in their ports of call, rather than have the engines running full-time to keep their passengers at the right level of comfort, which further reduces emissions, while onboard programmes for recycling and green awareness are common.

The Polar regions, with their more fragile ecosystems, also have much stricter laws regarding what kind of vessels can go there, including restrictions on the use of heavy fuel oil, the size of ships and even the number of passengers they can carry. The International Maritime Organisation created the ‘Polar Code’ in 2014 to ensure all operators adhere to the series of regulations drawn up to limit the impact of visitors on both the Arctic and Antarctic areas.

Of course, that doesn’t do a lot to lessen the impact of thousands of visitors descending at once on places like Venice and Dubrovnik. That is largely down to the cities themselves to figure out what is sustainable and what isn’t, but our thoughts are we’d rather gnaw our own limbs off than be among 5,000 passengers in the first place. There are always smaller ships to try, and lesser-known ports to enjoy, and the variety of the cruise world is second to none in this respect.

And if all else fails, there is now the time-honoured method of off-setting your own carbon footprint for all types of travel – by plane, train, car and, yes, cruise ship – through one of several offset websites like Terrapass and Carbon Footprint that allow travellers to pay a fee for reduced emissions elsewhere in the world to counter-balance their own effects.

So, the next time someone tells you that your cruise holiday habit resembles something from the Stone Age in environmental terms, you can point them in this direction and the huge strides being made in ‘green’ propulsion. It’s all about your footprint. Carbon, that is.

What do you think about cruising’s environmental debate? Give us your thoughts in the Comments section below

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Simon Veness

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