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Does Carnival’s pollution tech signal big changes for the cruise industry?

Carnival Cruise Ship

A Carnival cruise ship. In 2011, Carnival consumed 25m metric tonnes of water and 3,394,214 metric tonnes of fuel. Photograph: Alamy


Powered by article titled “Does Carnival’s pollution tech signal big changes for the cruise industry?” was written by Bruce Watson, for on Monday 20th January 2014 20.34 UTC

When it comes to environmental sustainability, few industries face a more fundamental challenge than cruise ships. Cruising, after all, is an exercise in large numbers and grand expenditures. For example, a cruise on a Dream Class Carnival ship involves loading up to 3,646 passengers and 1,367 crew members onto a 1,004ft ship that weighs more than 128,000 gross tons. The cruise then takes them around the Caribbean, feeding them, laundering their clothes and pampering them. The environmental impact is similarly stunning: in 2011, Carnival consumed 25m metric tonnes of water and 3,394,214 metric tonnes of fuel, while producing 145,480 metric tonnes of sulfur dioxide and 11m tonnes of greenhouse gases.

Yet, for all the seemingly inherent wastefulness of the cruise industry, many cruise lines are making a concerted effort to improve their waste streams, cut down on their fuel consumption and generally reduce their impact on the earth. Some of these changes have been the result of laws, others consumer pressure, but the end effect is the same: an industry that is working to improve its environmental footprint, even as some activists argue it isn’t doing enough.

Recently, the largest cruise company in the world, Carnival, docked in the spotlight when it received the New Economy’s Clean Tech Award for Best Marine Solutions Company. The award recognized Carnival’s decision to install a new exhaust filtration system on its North American ships, at an estimated cost of $180m.

The filtration system, which scrubs sulfur, nitrogen and particulate matter from exhaust, will enable the company to massively reduce its air pollution. This is a potentially industry-transforming development, and the manner in which it came about highlights both the promise and challenges facing the industry’s move toward sustainability.

First try: scrubbers scrapped

Most cruise ships are powered by bunker fuel, an extremely low-quality, high-polluting fuel blend. Carnival first experimented with scrubbers several years ago, installing a system on a Holland America ship, Tom Dow, Carnival’s vice-president for public affairs, explains. However, it took up too much space and released large amounts of polluted wastewater. Carnival scrapped the program.

Then, in 2010, the International Maritime Organization (IMO) designated a 200-mile zone around the US and Canada as an “emissions control area” and, two years later, mandated that ships traversing the areas around North America must use fuel with a sulfur content no higher than 1%. On 1 January 2015, that percentage will drop to 0.1%. To put this in context, the worldwide sulfur limit is 3.5%.

Industry-wide, the effects of this reduction will be huge. The EPA estimates that, by 2020, the ECA around the United States will prevent 5,500-14,000 premature deaths, 3,800 emergency room visits and 4.9m cases of “acute respiratory symptoms”. As the largest cruise ship company operating around the US, Carnival represents both a large part of the pollution problem and a large part of the solution.

The original ECA treaty called for companies to use low-sulfur fuel, which would reduce harmful exhaust, but would also cost significantly more. While fuel costs vary depending on where a particular ship buys its fuel, the “rule of thumb is that this will add between 70% and 100% to the cost of fuel,” Dow says. This means that using the low-sulfur fuel would effectively double the fuel cost of cruise shipping and undermine Carnival’s business model.

Because ships leaving Baltimore and Norfolk would have to spend a large amount of time in the US ECA, these ports were no longer economically attractive. The company decided to move the ships out of those cities, cutting hundreds of jobs.

Facing a choice between paying higher fuel costs and rearranging all of its cruises, Carnival sought another solution. Encouraged by the US Environmental Protection Agency, it revived its filtration program, working to develop scrubbers that could be deployed in the limited space available on ships. In 2013, the company successfully tested its first scrubber system on the cruise ship Queen Victoria and announced plans to install scrubbers on 32 ships that ply the US and Canadian ECAs, as well as 10 ships on AIDA, its German line.

It’s a significant achievement: the scrubbers will reduce sulfur and nitrogen to well within the ECA limit. Moreover, Dow notes, the filtration system also removes particulate matter, “so we’ll end up with a better outcome than we would if we just burned the more expensive compliant fuel.”

The cost of reducing pollution

However, the 42 ships due to be retrofitted represent less than half of the 101 ships currently in its fleet. The reason is simple: Carnival is not required by law to do so, and it’s not cost-effective to do it voluntarily.


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