Cruising's net zero commitment

In its efforts to deploy carbon-neutral fleets by 2050, the cruise industry has embraced a host of new technologies and fuels, driving progress on sustainability at sea and on land.

Photo by everst/

Photo by everst/

This past November, CLIA made the bold proclamation that its member lines, which make up 95% of the global cruise fleet, were committed to achieving carbon neutrality by 2050. 

That goal is especially lofty given that the technologies and fuels necessary to achieve it do not exist, which the industry readily recognizes. 

CLIA was clear in saying the commitment was to the “pursuit” of net zero and acknowledged the challenges to getting there. 

“Our industry is committed to pursuing net carbon neutral cruising by 2050, and CLIA and our oceangoing members are investing in new technologies and cleaner fuels now to realize this ambition,” Kelly Craighead, CLIA CEO, said in November. 

The myriad roadblocks to achieving this, CLIA said, start with the need for alternative fuel sources. Some don’t exist, and with others there are engineering, supply and regulatory hurdles to large-scale adoption.

According to CLIA’s annual environmental report, produced by Oxford Economics and released in November, the industry is in many ways ahead of the technology. More than three-quarters of the global cruise fleet is equipped to use alternative
fuels in hopes for their widespread commercial use, including liquefied natural gas (LNG), already being widely adopted, biodiesel, methanol, ammonia and hydrogen. 

But aside from LNG, which can reduce up to 20% of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, the fuels necessary to achieve zero emissions are not yet available widely, if at all. An example that CLIA cited is hydrogen, which the U.S. Coast Guard Office of Design and Engineering Standards deems “too hazardous for bulk carriage, partly due to its flammability” and is not currently approved for marine vessels in the U.S. 

“On a vessel-specific, case-by-case basis, approval can be sought from the Coast Guard. The intricacies of the regulations in place to build a commercial, zero-emission, hydrogen-powered ship hinder not only shipbuilding but also the development of hydrogen refueling infrastructure shoreside that is necessary to operate a hydrogen-powered ship,” the report said. 

However, the report also found that the cruise industry’s “investment in facilitating the research and development of these fuels has shortened the expected timeline” in which they will become available. CLIA recently joined other maritime organizations in proposing a $5 billion International Marine Organization Research and Development fund, paid for by the maritime industry, to accelerate the development of zero-GHG fuels and propulsion technologies.

The individual cruise lines are also investing significantly on this front. 

“Currently, there is no one technology that we can purchase to be carbon neutral,” said Elaine Heldewier, sustainability director for Carnival Corp. “Nobody can. That’s why it’s an aspiration.”

Elaine Heldewier, Carnival Corp.
‘There is no one technology we can purchase to be carbon neutral. That’s why it’s an aspiration.’
—Elaine Heldewier, Carnival Corp.

And it’s one that she said Carnival is “working very hard with different groups” to try to achieve. 

“There are lots of people who are working on solutions, and we are tapping into those discussions and becoming members of different groups so that we can participate in what they’re doing and be part of the collective solution,” she said. 

Silvia Garrigo, Royal Caribbean Group’s chief environmental, social and governance officer, put a number to it, saying that 80% of the solution to decarbonizing its business lies with alternative fuels that mostly don’t exist yet. 

“What we have to do is prepare ourselves to be able to integrate the different technology and fuels that will evolve over time so that we can be prepared to bring in those fuels, adjust our operations and further decarbonize our business,” she said. 

Silvia Garrigo, Royal Caribbean Group
‘We have be able to integrate the different technology and fuels that will evolve.’
—Silvia Garrigo, Royal Caribbean Group

“It is ambitious,” Garrigo acknowledged, referencing net zero, “but it is also calculated in a way to make sure that we are doing our part to decarbonize our business.”

Cruise lines, meanwhile, are working on other steps to lower their carbon footprint. Carnival has partnered with Corvis, a German battery maker, to build battery systems that could help power ships. In 2023, Royal Caribbean’s Silversea brand will deliver a ship that runs on hybrid power: LNG as its main fuel but supplemented with a fuel cell system and batteries. 

The entire industry is working to plug into shoreside power grids as much as possible. According to CLIA, 35% of global cruise capacity is fitted to operate on shoreside power and 82% of ships on order are fitted with systems to do so. 

The bottleneck, CLIA said, is the availability of high-wattage power sources onshore, with only 14 of more than 800 ports that CLIA ships visit each year having plug-in capability. These are mostly in the U.S., Germany, Norway and China. 

“While the introduction of shore power capabilities in ports has been limited in comparison to the adoption by CLIA member ships, progress is expected to accelerate over the coming years,” CLIA said. 

Of course, if the shoreside power itself is not from a clean source, it doesn’t necessarily reduce emissions. 

“It’s kind of like if you have an electric car, you will only be zero emissions if the city you live in has electricity generated from renewable sources,” said Heldewier. 

She said that Carnival is working with ports not only on the infrastructure to plug in but on their electricity being renewable. 

“That will not just benefit us, but then that community will benefit even further,” she said. 

Dan Hubbell, the shipping emissions campaign manager for Ocean Conservancy, commended the industry’s efforts around shore power, saying it “has a real impact,” cutting emissions by 3% to 4% overall. 

“In addition to reducing greenhouse gas emissions, what makes plugging in to shore power so essential is reducing the ship’s air pollution, which disproportionately affects port and frontline communities of color,” he said. 

Cruise companies, including Royal and Norwegian Cruise Line Holdings (NCLH), are also investing heavily in carbon offsetting, which both call a stopgap measure. 

In June 2021, NCLH committed to offset about 3 million metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalent to address gaps in its decarbonization efforts and until new technology becomes available. CEO Frank del Rio called it “a sizable commitment.”

“To put it in perspective, that is the equivalent of over 7.5 billion miles driven by an average passenger car,” he said. “And we plan to increase offset purchases in future years to help us reach our goal of carbon neutrality.”

Royal is a partner in a Kansas wind farm project that has generated approximately 242,000 tons of carbon dioxide offsets and is expected to offset up to 12% of the company’s emissions annually.

Garrigo said that offsetting is in addition to aiming for net zero, calling it an “interim strategy.” 

“We also recognize that it is very important for us to decarbonize our house without offsets,” she said. “We don’t want to be in a position where we’re just investing in offsets.”

At Carnival, Heldewier said, offsetting is not a current focus. 

“We want to invest those resources in the technology that will cut the emission versus continue to emit and then offset,” she said. “The offsets help. There’s no question about that. But there is room for both. We prefer right now to concentrate investments on actually reducing what we produce.”


The Costa Smeralda, which is powered by LNG, taking on fuel. (Courtesy of Carnival Corp.)

The Costa Smeralda, which is powered by LNG, taking on fuel. (Courtesy of Carnival Corp.)

Steady progress in rough seas

It is notable that the cruise industry, arguably the hardest hit in travel by the pandemic after being shut down for 15 months and hemorrhaging billions of dollars, not only didn’t curtail its environmental projects but doubled down on them. 

“Sustainability, just like revenue generation, like good customer relationships, is not something that you can put the brakes on,” Garrigo said. “It’s not something you can postpone to a future date. Emissions reduction, sustainable sourcing and waste management is something that we need to do to be a responsible operator and for our guests to know that they are traveling with a responsible operator.”

Heldewier said that her team at Carnival “pushed very hard to get our goals approved” even as the pandemic took the toughest toll on the company. 

“That’s why we have them public now,” she said, adding that when setting benchmarks as far in the future as 2050, “you don’t reach these goals by making quick decisions. This is work that we have to do internally by thinking about where we want to be and what makes sense for our business. It’s not something you do overnight. But we made the time to go through this.”


Industry called on to do more

Hubbell, of the Ocean Conservancy, commended the industry’s ambitions but said it needs to do more. 

“It’s heartening to see the commitments toward reducing greenhouse gas emissions,” he said. “More work is needed from the sector to translate aspirations into the tangible carbon reductions we need to see this decade.” 

Dan Hubbell, Ocean Conservancy
‘It’s heartening to see the commitments toward reducing emissions.’
—Dan Hubbell, Ocean Conservancy

He said that to reach zero emissions by 2050, “we will need to see the first zero-emissions ships on the water well before 2030 in addition to sharp cuts in greenhouse gas emissions overall through energy efficiency improvements and new technologies, such as wind-assisted ships, along with the batteries and fuel cells.” 

Hubbell applauded the goal of zero emissions rather than offsetting. 

“Especially for shipping, it’s vital to aim for true zero by 2050 at the latest, as the guiding star for ambition,” he said. “To realize that goal, the shipping industry writ large and cruise ships in particular need to start investing more into zero-emission ships and
fuels. Carbon offsets out of sector will not assist the way tangible technological investments will in reaching this goal.” 

One area that Hubbell and others say the industry should reconsider is its use of LNG. There are 25 LNG-powered CLIA-member ships on order or under construction, and 52% of newbuild capacity will rely on LNG fuel for primary propulsion. 

But Hubbell said that while LNG reduces a ship’s carbon dioxide emissions, it has “massive climate implications due to its emission of methane,” which he said is 86 times more potent as a greenhouse gas than CO2. 

“When the entire life cycle of LNG is considered, it can be potentially worse than conventional fuel in terms of greenhouse gas emissions,” Hubbell said. 

The industry is aware of LNG’s limitations, and Heldewier said that Carnival, which was the first to debut LNG-powered ships and has helped increase the availability of the fuel at ports worldwide, said that LNG, too, will become cleaner. 

“We know that LNG by itself currently is not the solution,” she said. “But it is a bridge in terms of narrowing the emissions that are currently being produced and from most other types of fuels that would help us get there. 

“Now that we have the LNG ships, and their performance has been great, we are looking into bio-LNG, which comes from sources where emissions could be completely eliminated or reduced even further, depending on the source,” Heldewier said. “We are having discussions with suppliers in terms of how that market can be further incentivized so that the volume can be there.”

She said it’s a process that will be similar to the way Carnival started with LNG. 

“It wasn’t there in the ports and the volumes we needed, and now it is,” she said.


A rendering of Silversea’s Nova, which will use LNG as its main fuel, supplemented with a fuel cell system and batteries. (Courtesy of Silversea Cruises)

A rendering of Silversea’s Nova, which will use LNG as its main fuel, supplemented with a fuel cell system and batteries. (Courtesy of Silversea Cruises)

The profit incentive

The cruise industry says its efforts toward sustainability are both altruistic and serve to protect the ocean and ocean communities that their business depends on. 

Research shows, however, that it could eventually add to their bottom lines. Consumer concern about the environment is not just growing but is translating into buying habits, said Karen Page Winterich, professor of marketing at the Smeal College of Business, Penn State University. 

According to Winterich, about 20% of consumers don’t care or are indifferent to environmental impact, while another 20% on the opposite end care very strongly. The larger chunk in the middle might care but doesn’t make decisions based on it. 

“But that number on the low end is decreasing, and the number on the high end is increasing,” she said. “That segment that really cares is growing, and the number of what I call unconcerned, disengaged — those are going down.”

As a result, Winterich said, the subset that considers environmental impact when making travel plans is growing. 

Of course, she said, there is always the “attitude behavior gap,” when intent doesn’t translate to behavior. 

Karen Page Winterich, Penn State University
‘The number of people who are willing to pay more to reduce the harm is growing.’
—Karen Page Winterich, Penn State University

“What it comes right down to, if it’s 20% more [costly] or even 10% more for a vacation to be on a low-emissions or carbon neutral cruise ship, [people say] will I do it?” Winterich said. “Price is always going to be a big factor in consumer decisions. I don’t think we’re ever going to say we don’t care about it at all. But the number of people who are willing to pay more to reduce the harm is growing. It’s still not the majority, but it’s growing.”