By Dr. Ana Puszkin- Chevlin
Exploring the climate impacts of summer vacation plans is timely, as summer is the high season for travel. Over the winter, our family booked a seven-night cruise through the Mediterranean on Celebrity’s ship the Edge, followed by a 10-day stay in San Francisco. Excited as I was about my plans, as a sustainability professional my enthusiasm was tempered simply thinking about the carbon footprint of my adventures.
To start, the flights from Florida via New York to Rome and back, followed by the trip to San Francisco and back to Florida would contribute approximately 1.83 tons of CO2. The cruise seems to be an even worst culprit on multiple levels – diesel fuel, food waste, wastewater, human waste, etc. According to myclimate.org, the CO2 emission of a 7-day cruise with six port stops would add another 2.1 metric tons. Multiply these emissions by two, as I was traveling with my husband, and the estimated emissions related to just these components of our vacation, (not the hotels, restaurants, transfers, etc.) grows to 7.86 tons, approximately 16% of the total carbon emissions the average American household produces each year. Purchasing a carbon offset for the emissions would run approximately $157, about the cost of a dinner out at a trattoria; yet in all honesty, it’s hard to add the extra surcharge voluntarily, especially when there are no visible impacts or recognition for doing the “right thing”.
Curious to better understand the sustainability challenges of the cruise industry, I met with Celebrity Edge’s Environmental Officer who is charged with overseeing the ship’s environmental operations, sustainability initiatives, and compliance with international maritime environmental protocols. While he would not verify or contradict the GHG emission estimate, he made some interesting points about how cruising is less environmentally destructive than often portrayed. He was also eager to discuss the strides the industry is making toward having ship excursions reach net zero.
Some of the ideas he put forth were interesting. For example:
- A ship transports, lodges, and feeds approximately 2800 guests, plus crew. If all these guests traveled to multiple destinations by plane or car and stayed at hotels and ate at restaurants, their consumption patterns might exceed that of the ship.
- Each ship is a ‘controlled system” with strong sustainability protocols in place to minimize impacts. Ships in the Celebrity/Royal Caribbean fleet sort and recycle all garbage. Incinerated garbage is converted into fuel. All wastewater is treated to high purity standards before being released, and human biosolids are offloaded to appropriate facilities at ports as opposed to being discharged. All lights on the ship are LED, and some ships are now outfitted with solar to support lighting systems. Much of the food supplies are purchased in local markets etc., and there are ways in which the cruise ship manages consumption and waste more effectively and sustainably than land-based hotels and restaurants.
- The ship’s large staff are trained in sustainability, contributing to the reduction in pollution and waste, and they may share these habits and knowledge with their respective communities upon return.
The relationship between the cruise ship and its docking ports is an area of focus for sustainability objectives. The levels and types of infrastructure at port facilities vary depending on their size and location, and cruise ports are not always co-located with cargo ports, which have different requirements, as well as less seasonal traffic. Presently, many cruise ships that dock at ports must continue to run their diesel engines to power the vessel, producing unnecessary noxious emissions. Ideally, all ships should be built to ‘plug into the electric grid” while at port and to shut off all engines. However, most ports do not have the electric capacity to handle cruise ships and older vessels aren’t wired for the electric cutover. Likewise, as the cruise industry evaluates powering ships with liquid natural gas (LNG) rather than diesel, they struggle to identify which ports have the space to store LNG fuel and manage associated safety concerns. Cruise ports, especially in European destinations, are often adjacent to sometimes small picturesque urban centers.
Incentives to encourage sustainability upgrades on land and onboard are difficult to implement, requiring collaboration among city, provincial, and national jurisdictions, port authorities, energy, and water utilities, and the cruise industry’s many actors. One approach has been to differentiate the port fees ships pay based on the ship’s sustainability features and protocols, but creating standards and applying them equitably is challenging. Additionally, the port fees are not substantial enough to motivate large retrofit investments from the cruise industry.
Presently, the approach that has been most successful in improving the environmental impacts of the industry has emerged from a set of EU environmental regulations and pacts including the EU Green Deal’s Fit-for-55, which includes FuelEU Maritime Initiative, and the EU Transition Pathway to Tourism program. Larger companies such as Royal Caribbean, which owns Celebrity, and others have voluntarily developed sustainability programs, such as Save the Waves, which outline company standards and are used promotionally. With these programs and initiatives, the cruise industry is making strides toward net-zero neutrality but will need to stay committed to overcoming stiff headwinds.