Cruising Toward a Cleaner Future

Amidst a booming tourism industry, can massive cruise ships achieve sustainability?

In 2012, a shocking report from the Washington Post stated that a cruise ship carrying 1,886 passengers traveling from Vancouver, B.C. to Alaska emits the same amount of sulfur dioxide and fine particulate as roughly 13 million cars in one day (1).   Coupled with the cruise line industry’s astounding growth in the tourism sector, climate change has been and will continue to be a significant influence in Carnival Corporation’s business strategy.  Though climate change has a resounding negative impact on most emissions heavy corporations, Carnival stands at an intersection of positive business growth fueled in part by climate change and increasing costs related to curbing its own emissions contribution.  Specifically, newly opened cruise routes due to melting ice have fueled new business for Carnival and other cruise lines while hull improvements, exhaust cleaning, and operations shifts have contributed to considerable costs for the company.

Juliet Eilperin. “Cruise ship lines, Alaska officials question new air pollution limits,” The Washington Post,
Source: Juliet Eilperin. “Cruise ship lines, Alaska officials question new air pollution limits,” The Washington Post.

Short-term benefits that the cruise line industry has seen from global warming are the opening of new cruise routes like the Northwest Passage and new excursion opportunities in Alaska.  One cruise line company, Crystal Cruises, offers a cruise route in excess of $22,000 per passenger that covers the Northwest Passage.  The route, which the cruise line successfully completed in September 2016, is significant because the waters were previously unnavigable just 100 years ago (2).  The second Northwest voyage will take place again in 2017.  For reference, booking a 1,300 square foot suite costs roughly $120,000.  For Carnival Corporation specifically, climate change has resulted in adjusted routes that inch closer to the Northwest Passage but the company has yet to set sail in the risky waters.  For cruise routes to Alaska, which Carnival has traveled for many decades, the cruise line is able to travel closer to large icebergs that once kept cruise ships at bay.  These exciting opportunities continue to fuel the rapidly growing industry which is expected to grow 35% to $31 billion by 2020 (3).

Particular improvements have been made by Carnival Corporation to limit emissions, though some critics would say the efforts fall short of expectations.  In 2012, Carnival committed to dedicating $400 million to investing in sulfur dioxide scrubbers that work to “clean” the exhaust from burning fuel.  Carnival emerged as an industry leader integrating this technology in a maritime setting and subsequently met its 20% carbon equivalent reduction goal in 2015 (4).  It has also sought to increase overall fuel efficiency by using more hydrodynamic hull coating, installing more power efficient products within ships, and shifting operations in port to use more shore power facilities. However, a Friends of the Earth report from 2016 gave Carnival an “C-” for air pollution due to only having scrubbers installed only 40% of its fleet, and for failing to install shore power cables on all ships (5).

Going forward, Carnival will likely continue to develop new engine technology, shift to solar energy to power some components, and install shore power capabilities on its entire fleet.  The previous steps to make the ships more streamlined are marginal improvements and the exhaust scrubbing, while revolutionary, attacks the symptom more than the source of the problem.  Carnival cruise improvements going forward should include a focus on solar energy to power certain passenger amenities.  Future hulls should also be redesigned to minimize wind resistance, especially since newer ships tend to be much larger in order to increase passenger capacity.  One advancement mentioned in Carnival’s 2015 Sustainability Report is the use of Liquefied Natural Gas (LNG).  According to the report, LNG will result in zero sulfur dioxide emissions and a 25% reduction in carbon emissions (6).  On top of the emission reductions, Carnival will also benefit from the low prices of LNG compared to marine fuel (7).  The implications of the new fuel on long term operations could be significant, however, as LNG requires longer tanks, different support facilities in port, and potentially shorter time periods between port stops.

Although Carnival is cruising toward a cleaner future, one contradictory improvement with Carnival’s sustainability drive is the fact that it continues to build bigger vessels.  Although these include efficient advancements, the inherent inefficiency of these giant vessels seem contrary to a sustainable effort.  The two newest ships added to the fleet will arrive starting in 2020 and weigh in at 180,000 gross tons, making them the largest of the Carnival fleet (8).  Although the two LNG-powered cruise ships will set a new precedent for cruise ships based in North America, the trend of “bigger and better” vessels likely undermine some of Carnival’s eco-friendly improvements. (762)

[1]. Eilperin, J, 2012. “Cruise ship lines, Alaska officials question new air pollution limits,” The Washington Post, [Online]. Available at:, accessed 2 November 2016.

[2]. Business Wire: A Berkshire Hathaway Company. 2016. “Mission Accomplished: Crystal Serenity Completes 32-Day Northwest Passage Journey.” [Online], accessed 2 November 2016.

[3]. Statista Research and Analysis. 2016. “Revenue of the cruise industry U.S. 2020.” [Statistic], accessed 4 November, 2016.

[4]. Carnival Corporation, Fiscal Year 2012 Sustainability Report, pg 2. 2012.

[5]. Friends of the Earth. “Carnival Cruise Lines Report Card.”, accessed 4 November, 2016

[6] Carnival Corporation, Fiscal Year 2015 Sustainability Report, pg 38-40. 2015.

[7]. Morris, Gregory. “LNG Emerging as Fuel of Choice for Vessels, Ferries.” The Oil and Gas Reporter, July, 2013., accessed 4 November, 2016.

[8] Clarke, Patrick. “Carnival Announces Company’s Largest, More Eco-Friendly Cruise Ships.” Fox News, September, 2016., accessed 4 November, 2016.


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Student comments on Cruising Toward a Cleaner Future

  1. T.S., a rare example of a company both benefiting from and exacerbating global climate change. Though not a cruiser myself, I’ve always had this perception that cruise lines epitomize modern day waste – polluting the waters and the air and wasting food with all-you-can-eat options. I’m disappointed to hear that they claim sustainability efforts, but act in ways that counter those objectives. This Carnival example makes me concerned about the many other companies who may be claiming environmentally friendly behaviors, but in many ways making the situation worse. Kudos to you for calling them out!

  2. Thank you for this interesting post! One thing I was wondering as I read your comment on the larger ships is whether this contradiction is still true when you take number of passengers into account. I tried to find articles on this but was unable to. However, based on simple scale logic, I would assume that bigger ships if nothing else cause lower environmental impact per person.

  3. Cruise ships have always been amongst the worst offenders of respecting the environment. There have been studies that show that the impact on air quality in the Mediterranean can be significantly attributed to the impact that cruise ships have on the area[1].

    Contini, D., 2011. The direct influence of ship traffic on atmospheric PM2.5, PM10 and PAH in Venice. Journal of Environmental Management, 92, 1.

  4. T.S – this is a great article. Indeed, the shipping industry is moving to cleaner propulsion systems. LNG vessels for example are now equipped with DFDE (dual fuel diesel electric) propulsion systems, which offer the ability to burn both HFO and LNG. This offers a lot of flexibility to operators as they can switch to the most cheap fuel. Cruise ship operators will also benefit from this optionality. The only major concern I see going forward, which you slightly touched on, is the fact that there is no port infrastructure yet in place to support LNG powered cruise ships. It will be interesting to see what part of this cost will be assumed by the operators, since they may end up having to significantly increase their CapEx, which could in turn increase trip prices, leading to reduced demand for cruises.

    Finally, I also want to add that cruise ships that have propulsion systems capable of burning gas have an advantage over LNG carriers because cruise ships are not in the business of transporting LNG. Operators of LNG carriers on the other hand need to make trade-offs on a daily basis between the amount of LNG that they will burn for propulsion and the amount of LNG that they will deliver to their clients.

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