The cruise line industry is at a unique crossroads with regard to climate change as it serves as both a major source of the environmental harm that has exacerbated the global warming phenomenon and a beneficiary of some of the effects of the rise in global temperatures. The subject of this discussion, Carnival Corporation p.l.c., is the largest cruise company in the world comprised of 10 cruise line brands with a combined fleet of over 100 ships (representing ~50% of the total worldwide cruise market).
Cruise Ships: The Environmentally Unfriendly Way to Travel
The large scale climate changes we have seen over the course of the last century is primarily due to the build-up of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere accumulated from the continual combustion of fossil fuels. This has resulted in a commiserate increase in CO2 levels translating to a correlated increase in temperature, a rise in sea levels and an increase in extreme weather events.
Oil is currently the dominant fuel source for all transportation methods and this dependence on fossil fuels make the transportation sector a major contributor to the aforementioned environmental issue. In particular, international sea vessels such as cruise ships typically use a form of heavy fuel oil which produces a greater amount of CO2 emission per ton of oil. In the last decade, Carnival published an annual environmental report detailing the level of CO2 emissions across its fleet. In the 2008 report, Carnival stated that its ships, on average, release approximately ~712 kg of CO2 per voyage. Per passenger the amount of CO2 emitted is about 401g or more than three times the amount of a passenger on a standard Boeing 747 jet.
The “Silver (Cruise) Lining”
Major entities within this industry, including Carnival, seem to be aware of this issue and appear interested in at least reducing the carbon footprint of its vessels. In 2014, Carnival achieved a goal of reducing the intensity of its carbon footprint by ~20%. Over this same time frame, they announced that the next generation of ships built by Carnival will be powered by Liquefied Natural Gas, recognized as one of the cleanest burning fossil fuels. Furthermore, the company has made a $400M investment in exhaust gas cleaning systems that reduce the amount of sulfur compounds and particulate matter generated by the ships’ engine exhaust. Finally, Carnival made a commitment to increase the number of ships in its fleet with cold ironing capabilities, allowing ships to connect to a port’s electrical grid as a power source, rather than relying on the ship’s engine, and further reducing the ship’s air emissions. As a result of these efforts, Carnival was identified as a leader in sustainability efforts and awarded a position on both the FTSE 350 and the S&P 500 CDLI, becoming the only company to have representation in both funds.
One Foot on the Brakes, One Foot on the Gas Pedal
According to Carnival, “change in mean temperatures could open up new routes and ports” for its ships, while “change in precipitation [might] make some ports more attractive.”
Ironically, climate change has caused more destinations to be accessible to tourists. As mentioned in the quote, Carnival may see substantial benefits from global warming as ports in the Northern hemisphere become more accessible and desirable for travel year-round. While the motivations behind these journeys may vary, the total effect is an increase in interest and cruise lines continue to be one of the fastest growing segments of tourism in the US. Even virtually untouched landscapes (e.g. northern parts of Alaska and the Arctic) have recently become accessible due to the melting of sea ice surrounding land masses.
Can Carnival Truly Be a Part of the Solution?
These benefits call into question whether Carnival is sufficiently motivated to fully contribute to climate change prevention. While many of Carnival’s new ships will include the technology outlined earlier in this post, the vast majority will continue to contribute only marginally lower levels of pollution than they did before.
Environmentally-sound practices are also not strictly enforced by law. While Carnival has received fines for its carbon emissions in the past, most ships are permitted to dump treated sewage from their ships anywhere. Though treated sewage is better for the environment than the raw version, traditional sanitation methods are not efficient enough to meet current EPA standards and have a negative cumulative effect in oceans waters, particularly with regard to reef ecosystems. Individual cruise lines have been taking measures to become eco-friendlier but it is essential for regulations and requirements to be placed at an international level. Cruise lines must have similar standards for carbon emissions and sewage treatment as countries to make a significant dent on their contributions to this issue.