The Plus and Minus of Green Cruising

March 12, 2008

At yesterday's Seatrade "State of the Industry" panel, which tackled cruise line presidents' opinions on such wide-ranging subjects as the struggling economy's impact on cruising, the notion of private equity companies' roll in the industry (yawn-inducing for most), ship-building and the globalization of cruise travel, there was no way of avoiding one of today's truly hot-button topics: the environment and global warming. And for an industry whose petroleum addiction can't be understated, the topic was indeed thought-provoking. So how have the lines responded to the ever-widening environmental crisis?

First, the good.

Cruise lines have been undertaking a number of new projects designed to show that they're doing their part in combating global warming.

Stein Kruse, President and CEO of Holland America, spoke of cold ironing, a process in which docked ships plug into a city's electrical system during their time in port. For the most part, the practice is limited to cities such as Seattle (where the grid is powered by hydro-electric power) and Los Angeles, but for those ships stationed on the West Coast, it becomes an opportunity to conserve fuel and reduce emissions that go into city air space. Holland America and Princess are two lines that currently use this feature.

Stein says he does believe it will happen more and more, but huge infrastructure difficulties and the need for global standards are challenges. And while Seattle cold ironing saves about eight tons of fuel a day, with a real financial and environmental impact, the strategy is not a panacea, though definitely a step forward.

Holland America has also tested scrubbing technologies. With a modification on smokestacks, the technology uses seawater to take out some portion of the nitrogen oxide and most of the sulfur that would have gone into the air.

A number of lines have switched over to the use of the very resilient silicone paints for the ship's hull, which reduces the amount of pollution-causing material that erodes from the hull.

And Costa, along with other lines, has introduced an onboard recycling system.

But ... all these things are not sufficient, and this sentiment was echoed by the panel.

So on to the bad.

For the most part, the limited progress is more like a Band-aid than substantive change and includes reductions of hull erosion that result in slight improvements in fuel efficiency. One of the rationales offered was that ship designs and orders were already in place before the discourse on green travel initiatives really began to reach critical mass. Not unlike other industries -- auto, aviation -- real progress won't occur until the reliance on fossil fuels ends. But according to the panel, use of alternative fuels is not in the industry's near-future plans. And the globalization of cruising, with its expansion into every nook and cranny of the world, means that the fuel requirements will only increase.

What do cruise lines see potential for in the future?

Among the suggestions that came up as possibilities were the use of carbon offsets -- in the form of either government mandates or voluntary programs (like tree replanting) -- and more slow steaming between ports, which can dramatically increase fuel efficiency. In fact, one executive told us that 18 knots is really the maximum speed for fuel efficiency; go over that, and the ships burn through fuel.

Other options include cleaner burning fuels, the use of lower distillate, changes in deployments, itinerary changes (fewer days at sea), and adding a reflective film on windows to better keep out hot air and reduce the need for air conditioning. We're also told that cruise lines are planning later arrival times in ports of call -- which means ships can slow down. Getting to Grand Turk at 8 a.m. instead of 7 a.m. isn't, for most, a massive compromise.

Ultimately, as the panelists noted, some sort of global regulation and industry cooperation is necessary before lines can truly make a dent in the overwhelming problem.

In the near future, the major point of issue becomes the following: what can the lines do to increase fuel efficiency and reduce emissions? We'll be taking a look in more detail at some of the proposed solutions. Stay tuned.

--by Dan Askin, Assistant Editor

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