Floating Giants: The World’s Largest Cruise Ship Emerges as a Climate Liability

The World’s Largest Cruise Ship

As massive ships like Royal Caribbean’s Icon of the Seas tack on more energy-intensive amenities, emissions from the cruise industry are climbing.

When Royal Caribbean’s Icon of the Seas embarks on its first official voyage on January 27, it’s set to become a symbol of luxury and opulence. However, behind the grandeur lies a growing concern—the escalating carbon footprint of the cruise industry.

The Icon of the Seas, touted as the world’s largest cruise ship, is a marvel of engineering, measuring over 360 meters long and weighing around 250,000 gross registered tons. With 20 decks, 40 restaurants, bars, and lounges, seven pools, six waterslides, and a 55-foot waterfall, the ship promises to redefine the vacation experience. Yet, it also doubles down on a negative aspect: greenhouse gas emissions.

In 2022, Bryan Comer, the director of the Marine Program at the International Council on Clean Transportation, conducted a study comparing the carbon footprint of cruising to a hotel stay plus air travel. The findings were alarming, revealing that a person on a 2,000km US cruise with the most efficient cruise line would generate roughly 500kg of CO2—double that of a round-trip flight and a stay in a four-star hotel, according to Comer.

Stella Bartolini Cavicchi, a marine policy advisor at OceanMind, emphasizes the environmental impact of flying to cruise ports, creating a carbon-intensive holiday even before the cruise begins.

A spokesperson for Royal Caribbean defends the Icon, stating that it is designed to operate 24% more efficiently than the international standard for new ships. However, data from 2022 shows Royal Caribbean’s direct emissions totaled 5.5 million tons of CO2 equivalent, up from 5.3 million tons in 2019.

Despite the environmental concerns, the cruise industry is booming. The Cruise Lines International Association (CLIA) predicts a surge in passenger volume to 36 million this year, up from almost 32 million in 2023 and 30 million in 2019. A report from the ClimateTrace coalition reveals that cruise ship emissions are already 6% higher than pre-pandemic levels.

Cruise ships not only contribute to atmospheric emissions but also release black carbon, a soot-like substance that accelerates glacial melting in the Arctic. While cruise ships make up just 1% of the global fleet, they are responsible for 6% of black carbon emissions, according to Bartolini Cavicchi.

Despite these environmental impacts, cruise companies are making sustainability pledges. Royal Caribbean Cruises, MSC Cruises, Norwegian Cruise Line Holdings, and Carnival Corp. have committed to achieving net-zero emissions or carbon neutrality by 2050. To meet these goals, cruise operators are increasingly adopting less carbon-intensive alternatives, such as liquified natural gas (LNG). Over half of the 44 new vessels on order through 2028, according to CLIA, will be powered by natural gas, including the Icon of the Seas.

The International Maritime Organization (IMO) has responded to industry pressures by implementing measures to calculate the Energy Efficiency Ship Index (EEXI) and operational Carbon Intensity Indicator (CII). Ships will now receive sustainability ratings, and those with consistently poor ratings will be required to submit improvement plans.

As the cruise industry grapples with its environmental impact, the juxtaposition of luxury and emissions continues to raise questions about the sustainability of these floating paradises.

 

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