Is it Possible for Cruises to be Environmentally Sustainable?

To future archeologists, mega cruise ships could be considered some of the most peculiar artifacts of our civilization – behemoths of mass engineering that come equipped with water slides and rows of umbrellas. Observing one can give the impression that cruise companies are attempting to overwhelm their customers into having a good time. We have engineered pleasure battleships, voyaging across the world’s oceans in search of enjoyment. It is hardly surprising that such a venture is unsustainable. A mid-sized cruise ship generates greenhouse gas emissions equivalent to 12,000 cars. Environmentalists accuse big industry players of investing meagrely in decarbonization and engaging in greenwashing, hiding delay tactics. The industry has long been besieged by bad PR, ranging from the regular dumping of toxic waste to mounting community protests about an enormous influx of tourists invading their docks.
However, the crucial question here is whether the people who purchase cruise deals to the Bahamas or Alaska genuinely care. It is easy to argue that they don’t. Despite the industry’s continued investment in new fossil fuel-powered vessels, the latest industry association report predicts that cruise ticket sales will rebound above their 2019 record sales levels this year, despite being hit by the pandemic. Nonetheless, Hurtigruten, a Norwegian specialty cruise line, is betting on at least some potential customers who may seek sustainable vacations. The company claims that it has constructed its latest fossil fuel-powered ship. The firm has unveiled new information on the technologies that it is testing to design the world’s first zero-emission cruise ship. Hurtigruten’s vessel appears to stick closer to the water than its competitors, reducing air friction, with retractable sails that double as solar panels replacing traditional smokestacks, and it runs on batteries for fuel rather than the heavy, viscous fuel oil used to power most ships. The firm plans to launch it by 2030.
With time running out to phase out fossil fuels and avoid the worst impacts of climate change, the moral argument is persuasive. However, major businesses frequently make critical decisions based on more pragmatic matters than right or wrong. Hurtigruten and its zero-carbon ships could steer the industry in a new direction, but it could be a green anomaly, a unique offering for a small percentage of eco-conscious vacationers, with the rest of the industry operating as usual.
Almost every CEO wants to be known as an environmentalist these days, but Daniel Skjeldam, the CEO of Hurtigruten, is among the few that do not sidestep the uncomfortable dimensions of the climate crisis: the apparent tension between endless pursuit of more, bigger, better, and the Earth’s biosphere’s constraints. Skjeldam states, “I think it’s just wrong to build larger and larger cruise ships.” Currently, the typical cruise ship hosts about 3,000 passengers, with cruise companies aiming for ever-larger liners, even aiming for ships with 8,000 to 9,000 passengers.
The idea of launching a cruise line occurred to Skjeldam in 2012. Hurtigruten (which stands for “Express Route” in English) was losing money, and Skjeldam, who was then the commercial director at European budget airline Norwegian Air Shuttle, thought he could turn things around. Officially appointed CEO in October of that year, he was on a Hurtigruten ship sailing past the Svalbard archipelago, home to the world’s northernmost inhabited town when the concept of running a cruise line dawned on him. While on the bridge chatting with the company’s veteran captain, who had been sailing with the company for five decades, they observed a glacier several miles away. The captain stated that when he first started sailing for the company in 1980, the glacier had reached all the way to where they were floating. This experience was an eye-opener for Skjeldam, and under his leadership, the firm began to make sustainability investments long before more prominent industry players did the same.
In 2016, the company started retrofitting its ships to use the grid’s power while docked in port rather than burning their own fuel – the technology can decrease air pollution by up to 70% when ships are docked. That year, Hurtigruten ordered the world’s first hybrid-power vessels and began offering cruises on its initial hybrid-power ship, the MS Roald Amundsen. With around 20% lower emissions than a similarly sized traditional ship, according to the firm, the company now operates four such vessels.
Skjeldam claims that customer demand for more sustainable travel, which he expects to increase in the coming years, as well as employee pressure, is driving the changes. Hurtigruten is the main employer in Longyearbyen, Svalbard’s primary settlement. Temperatures there are warming at six times the global average rate, causing unseasonably hot weather, glacier withdrawal, and avalanches set off by unstable snowfall. “I speak to these people, and they reflect on the substantial changes that have occurred over the last decade, and it frightens them,” Skjeldam explains. “That’s fuelled this interest and desire from inside the company to drive change and be part of the solution.” Hurtigruten aims for carbon-neutral operations by 2040 and to remove all scope three emissions from the company’s supply chain by 2050. Progress, however, has been sluggish, despite investing over $70 million in emissions-reducing technology. The firm partially faults energy prices, which have raised the cost of buying low-carbon biofuels. Despite reducing overall emissions by 2% between 2018 and 2022, emissions per customer voyage remained mostly unchanged.
Despite this, Skjeldam is moving forward with the company’s next significant project, designing a wholly zero-emission vessel – the first in the industry. In 2021, the team reached out to technology companies and shipbuilders, conducted feasibility studies, and assessed possible technologies such as small nuclear reactors or increased use of biofuels. Eventually, they opted for batteries. There was no adequate battery to sustain the company’s “expedition” cruises, with voyages ranging from week-long pleasure excursions to the Galapagos to multi-month journeys between the Arctic and Antarctica, and fares ranging from a few thousand dollars to the price of a luxury sports car. The company is exploring the concept of large batteries for its primary service: a multi-stop cruise up Norway’s coast that doubles as a mail and transit service for isolated fjord communities, offering many opportunities to recharge. Nevertheless, the battery would be enormous, with the engineers examining a capacity of 60 megawatt-hours, equivalent to 1,200 Tesla Model 3 batteries. This would allow it to run for well over…


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