How sustainable is the cruise ship industry? Cruise Lines International Association claims that “cruise lines are at the forefront in developing responsible environmental practices, leading by example for the world’s shipping industry.” The membership of CLIA accounts for around 95 percent of global cruise tips. CLIA ocean cruise lines are “on track to reduce the rate of carbon emissions by 40 percent by 2030,” according to the trade association. Can we believe the hype?
In April, CLIA lobbied the International Maritime Organization to adopt new environmental regulations that some call disastrous. The IMO is the UN agency responsible for regulating shipping. That fact makes the hype harder to believe.
The sustainability claims of the top three cruise lines
The world’s top three cruise lines make big claims about their sustainability efforts. Carnival, the world’s largest cruise line, claims one of its highest priorities is environmental protection. The company’s 2050 goals include achieving net carbon-neutral ship operations, using 100 percent fleet shore power, and sending 100 percent of its waste to waste-to-energy facilities.
Royal Caribbean is the second largest cruise line. The company asserts its respect for the oceans in its latest sustainability report. It has a Destination Net Zero initiative to achieve net zero emissions by 2050. Part of that initiative includes transitioning its ships to alternative fuels and technologies. Liquid natural gas is the company’s transitional fuel strategy and cites a 2021 study that found switching from heavy fuel oil to LNG can reduce emissions by up to 22 percent.
Norwegian Cruises, the third largest cruise line, is “committed to addressing climate change and doing our part to protect and preserve the environment,” according to its website. The company’s goal is to achieve net zero by 2050, increasing the percentage of its fleet with shore power capabilities to 70 percent by 2025 and increasing the percentage of treated wastewater by 2024. The actual percentage of treated wastewater is unstated.
The truth about the cruise ship industry
Friends of the Earth releases a report card on the cruise ship industry every year. This year’s report, the 10th one, evaluated 213 ships across 18 different cruise lines. The FOE report asks, “Is clean cruising possible?” Its answer is a “resounding no.”
Carnival was on criminal probation from 2017 to April 2022 in the U.S. for illegally dumping oily waste into the ocean. During its probation, Carnival’s cruise companies violated federal environmental law by dumping wastewater, oil, and plastic into the oil. Carnival scored the lowest ranking for the fourth year, earning an F rating. This low ranking occurred despite the end of federal criminal probation in the U.S.
Royal Caribbean and Norwegian Cruises are the second and third largest cruise lines. Although both fare much better than Carnival, neither has great ratings. Royal Caribbean received a C rating, while Norwegian Cruises received a C-.
“This industry is bent on false promises and pollution profiteering, even if that means shifting the burden onto frontline communities and vulnerable ecosystems,” said Marcie Keever, Oceans and Vessels Program Director with Friends of the Earth, in a statement.
The Nature and Biodiversity Conservation Union (NABU) Cruise Ranking 2022 evaluated the largest cruise providers in the European market regarding their climate protection initiatives. The current report is the 10th one by the environmental group. The results are similar to the FOE report findings. “The results once again show that environmental and climate protection are still not at the forefront of cruise companies’ ship operations and new construction.”
The verdict is greenwashing
The truth about cruise ship environmental claims is that it engages in greenwashing. As a thesis on the cruise ship industry by a Wageningen University student states, “Companies often publish information which is more positive than their actual performance.” Until cruise ship companies take climate change and the environment seriously, they will continue to publish sustainability reports that amount to hype.