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  • Writer's pictureAnne-Marie Soulsby

Sailing Towards Sustainability or Murky Waters? Exploring the Environmental Impact of Cruises

Cruises, often advertised as luxurious adventures on the high seas, have a significant environmental impact. Unsurprisingly this is not mentioned in promotional material and any touted eco-friendly initiatives can be also viewed as greenwashing - a practice wherein a company makes sustainability claims without really fulfilling those assertions or glossing over significant environmental issues in their messaging.

From emissions to waste management, the cruise industry has faced scrutiny for its contribution to pollution and ecosystem degradation. However, amidst growing environmental awareness, some cruise companies are striving to make positive changes and promote sustainability. But are these efforts enough to truly label any cruise as eco-friendly?

Before delving into the sustainability initiatives of cruise lines, it's important to understand the environmental challenges associated with cruising. Cruise ships pose significant environmental challenges due to their emissions of pollutants such as sulphur oxides which cause respiratory diseases, nitrogen oxides, carbon dioxide, black carbon, heavy metals, and methane. For example, some European cruise ships emit as much sulphur oxides as a billion cars, while their nitrogen oxide emissions can rival those of a quarter of a city's passenger vehicles. These impacts extend to port cities, where cruise ship pollution contributes to reduced air quality. That’s pretty gross and down right dirty, yuck.

They are also notorious for their large carbon footprints, emitting large amounts of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere trapping heat and causing climate change. The carbon intensity of cruising surpasses that of air travel, with an individual on a cruise ship emitting as much carbon dioxide as the combined impact of someone flying and staying in a hotel. Methane emissions from fossil gas powered ships further exacerbate greenhouse gas emissions. Additionally, the disposal of waste, including sewage and plastics, and black carbon emissions poses a serious threat to marine ecosystems. 

"Over-tourism", particularly driven by cruise passengers, poses significant environmental challenges in popular destinations worldwide. The sheer volume of visitors arriving via cruise ships overwhelms local ecosystems, infrastructure, and cultural sites. Moreover, the influx of tourists can lead to habitat destruction, erosion, and disturbance to wildlife in fragile coastal areas as well as littering. Additionally, the physical presence of large ships can damage coral reefs and coastal ecosystems.

Furthermore, the construction and operation of cruise ships entail substantial resource consumption and environmental impact. From the extraction of raw materials for shipbuilding to the disposal of decommissioned vessels, the entire lifecycle of cruise ships warrants scrutiny from a sustainability perspective. They don’t put all of that in the brochure for sure.

So what are the cruise companies doing to be more eco friendly?

Acknowledging these environmental concerns, several cruise companies have implemented sustainability initiatives to mitigate their impact. There are cruise ships that will connect to shoreside electricity reducing emissions,  Some have invested in advanced technologies to reduce emissions whilst others are moving towards alternative fuels.

However, consumers should remain vigilant and carefully scrutinise claims of environmental friendliness and assess the depth of sustainability initiatives. Often, sustainable changes may only apply to a small percentage of the fleet, while the majority continue to operate with high environmental impact. For instance, relying on scrubbers to clean exhaust fumes serves as a pretext for cruise ships to persist in using heavy oil, while fossil gas emissions release methane, a greenhouse gas more potent than carbon dioxide. These adjustments are not substantial shifts towards true sustainability; rather, they are minor alterations that perpetuate unsustainable practices.

Additionally, while onboard dining options may tout sustainability, many cruise lines still serve high carbon meals sourced from unsustainable practices. Moreover, encouraging passengers to consider sustainable transportation options to reach the ship and reducing excess consumption, such as souvenirs, can further minimise the ecological footprint of cruising.

To achieve genuine sustainability in the cruise industry, holistic approaches are necessary. This includes prioritising renewable energy sources, optimising ship design for energy efficiency, shifting to more plant based menus and adopting zero waste practices onboard. Promoting transparency and accountability in environmental reporting, and ensuring compliance with environmental regulations, are crucial for driving significant change. This is particularly important in international waters, where legal enforcement is challenging, and some cruise companies attempt to evade responsibility and engage in unsustainable practices for example dumping oily water and rubbish.

Amidst the sea of conventional cruise companies riding the wave of irresponsible tourism and pumping out pollution, Hurtigruten stands out for a more holistic approach to sustainability. Embracing innovation and environmental stewardship, Hurtigruten is steering the cruise industry towards more sustainable practices. From pioneering hybrid-powered ships to implementing stringent waste management practices, Hurtigruten is shifting to minimising its environmental impact at every stage of the cruising experience.They also provide cruises that collaborate with scientists, allowing for environmental research to be conducted. These initiatives are funded by revenue generated from cruise passengers, who also contribute to data collection efforts during their voyages. By prioritising renewable energy sources, reducing single-use plastics, and promoting responsible tourism, Hurtigruten is redefining what it means to take a cruise in a sustainable manner.

The most sustainable cruise is the one that doesn’t happen, but for some people it is their preferred way to vacation. If you can’t give up cruises then do some research and make an informed choice when selecting your next trip. Ultimately, while progress has been made towards sustainable cruising, the journey towards eco-friendly practices is ongoing. As a consumer, you play a vital role in advocating for responsible tourism and supporting cruise companies that prioritise sustainability. Be vigilant for instances of greenwashing, cruise companies supporting developments in protected marine areas, and any penalties imposed for violating regulations. By holding the industry accountable and demanding greater environmental stewardship, you can pave the way for a future where cruises truly sail towards sustainability.

Fortunately there is one thing you can do that can help any climate change guilt; you can consider the sustainability of your financial investments. By evaluating how your pension funds are allocated, you can contribute to mitigating the environmental impact of your cruise experience. Opting for pension funds that prioritise divestment from fossil fuel companies and instead invest in renewable energy and sustainable initiatives can significantly offset the carbon footprint associated with cruising. By aligning your financial investments with your environmental values you can play a proactive role in changing course towards a cleaner, greener future for all.

In the quest for sustainable tourism, the cruise industry stands at a critical juncture. While strides have been made to address environmental concerns, there's still much work to be done to truly minimise the ecological footprint of cruises. By embracing innovation, adopting best practices, and prioritising environmental conservation, cruise companies can chart a course towards a more sustainable future on the high seas.

Interested in shifting to a more sustainable lifestyle? Contact me for a personalised action plan that fits your schedule and budget. With my coaching, you'll have the support and accountability you need to make sustainable changes with ease and confidence.

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