Is Royal Caribbean’s Icon of the Seas cruise ship really sustainable?

Is Royal Caribbean’s Icon of the Seas cruise ship really sustainable?

On Tuesday, in a ceremony that of course involved a soccer ball, Argentine soccer superstar Lionel Messi pressed a button and a bottle of champagne crashed against the bow of Icon of the Seas, christening the most the world’s largest cruise ship in its home port. from Miami. Like a celebrity walking the red carpet, the arrival of Royal Caribbean’s 250,800-ton ship captured worldwide attention, with some marveling at its cutting-edge features, such as the largest water park in sea, while others criticize the ship’s gigantic potential to harm the environment.

With a capacity to carry nearly 8,000 people, the 20-deck, 1,198-foot-long ship — whose inaugural cruise with paying passengers departs Jan. 27 — is the size of a small city. There are eight “neighborhoods” with amenities including a 55-foot waterfall, six water slides and more than 40 restaurants, bars and entertainment venues.

According to Royal Caribbean, the ship, registered in the Bahamas, also sets a new standard for sustainability through the use of energy-efficient technology designed to minimize the ship’s carbon footprint and move closer to the goal of sustainability. undertaking to introduce net zero pollution. shipped by 2035.

“We live by one philosophy: to deliver the best vacations responsibly,” said Nick Rose, vice president of environmental management at Royal Caribbean Group. “And to do this, we build on the fundamental principles of sustainability for our planet and our communities. »

For decades, the cruise industry has been criticized for its negative impact on the environment. A 2021 study published in the Marine Pollution Bulletin found that despite technical advances, cruises remain a major source of air, water and land pollution affecting fragile habitats and human health.

While environmental groups have praised some of Icon of the Seas’ features, such as its advanced water treatment system, some say building such enormous ships is contrary to long-term goals of sustainability and conservation. cruise industry.

“Ships are getting bigger and bigger and that’s not the right direction the cruise industry needs to be going,” said Marcie Keever, director of the environmental organization’s Oceans and Ships program. Friends of the Earth. “If you really thought about sustainability and not your bottom line, you wouldn’t build a cruise ship with a capacity of almost 10,000 people. »

With over five different brands, Royal Caribbean has a fleet of 65 cruise ships of varying sizes. Icon of the Seas was built to meet demand and deliver the experiences its consumers seek, the company said, adding that all of its ships apply the same sustainability principles of energy efficiency and advanced waste management and some water.

Here’s a look at some key features that Royal Caribbean says make Icon of the Seas more sustainable and how they compare.

Icon of the Seas is the first Royal Caribbean ship to be powered by liquefied natural gas, or LNG, a fossil fuel that the cruise industry touts as a cleaner alternative to commonly used heavy fuel oil.

“LNG is currently the fossil fuel available at scale with the best performance in reducing air emissions,” the Cruise Lines International Association, the industry trade group, said in its report. 2023 Report on Environmental Technologies and Practices, citing the analysis of Sea-LNGan industry coalition that promotes the benefits of LNG as a viable marine fuel.

But environmental analysts worry about LNG’s long-term problems. Although it emits about 25 percent less carbon dioxide than conventional marine fuels, they say, LNG is primarily composed of methane, a potent gas that traps more heat in the atmosphere over time than carbon dioxide.

According to a 2020 greenhouse gas study According to the International Maritime Organization, the United Nations body that regulates global shipping, the use of LNG as a marine fuel increased by 30% between 2012 and 2018, leading to a 150% increase in methane emissions from ships. .

Bryan Comer, director of the maritime program at International Council on Clean Transport, The reason methane emissions have increased faster than LNG use is because ships are switching from steam turbines to dual-fuel internal combustion engines. “They are more fuel efficient, but emit large amounts of unburned methane into the atmosphere in the form of ‘methane leaks’ from the engine,” he said, noting ICCT Research which predicts that LNG demand will triple between 2019 and 2030, as will methane emissions.

“Even if ships used 100% renewable bio-LNG or e-fuels, methane emissions from ships would still double between 2019 and 2030 due to methane creep,” he added.

Royal Caribbean says LNG was the most viable alternative fuel available when decisions were made on how to build Icon of the Seas more than 10 years ago.

“People will say LNG is not the long-term fuel and we agree and see this as a transition,” Mr Rose said. “We built the ship to make it adaptable to future fuel sources.”

The company is preparing to launch next year the Celebrity Xcel, a 3,248-passenger ship that will be equipped with a tri-fuel engine designed to accommodate methanol, which several environmental groups consider one of the most promising fuels to achieve carbon neutrality. veil.

When cruise ships are docked in ports, their diesel engines and generators often run on fuel, emitting carbon dioxide into populated areas. Icon of the Seas was built to run on shoreside electricity at ports, a cleaner alternative to fuel, and hopes to become one of the first cruise ships to connect to Port Miami’s local power grid when shore power facilities will be about to become available in the spring.

Three ships can dock safely and simultaneously at the port on a given day, including Icon of the Seas, a Port Miami representative said.

“When it comes to sustainability, there is no silver bullet and we want to use every lever we can,” said Royal Caribbean’s Mr. Rose. “So if we can get to a port that has cleaner shore power capabilities, we want to plug it in so we don’t use fuel.”

The problem is that most ports don’t provide shore power: Only 2 percent of ports worldwide currently offer it to cruise ships, according to CLIA. Royal Caribbean says it works with ports and other cruise lines to promote its use.

Extend your 30 years “Save the Waves” Programwhich aims to prevent waste from ending up in landfills and the ocean, Royal Caribbean has built aboard Icon of the Seas what it says is the first waste management system that converts waste into energy.

Microwave-assisted pyrolysis technology, known as MAP, transforms food, bio-waste and cardboard waste into small pellets. The pellets are then heated to produce a gas which is converted into steam energy which Royal Caribbean says would be used to power the ship’s water park. The system also produces biochar, which can potentially be used as fertilizer.

The company said it will have a better understanding of the system’s output while the ship is fully operational in the coming months, but so far it takes about 25 kilowatts of electricity to run the system with a power of 200 kilowatts.

“It won’t take a lot of energy to run the system,” said Mr. Comer, of TCIbut, he added, “It won’t produce much power for the ship either.”

Icon of the Seas is equipped with an advanced purification system designed to treat all wastewater on board, from toilets and showers to galley galleries. More than 93 percent of the ship’s fresh water will be produced onboard through a reverse osmosis system, which removes contaminants from the water, the cruise line said.

Ms. Keever of Friends of the Earth said Royal Caribbean deserves credit for its processing systems. “They’re putting the most expensive and best wastewater treatment technology on their ships, and it’s important because they’re the largest cruise line and they’re showing the industry that they can do it. do, pay for it and that they should do it,” she said.

In his 2023 Promotional Video Series‘Creating an icon’ Royal Caribbean said the Icon of the Seas would be its “first ship with fuel cell technology”, which would be used to power parts of the ship like air conditioning and elevators.

But that won’t happen yet.

Fuel cells combine hydrogen and oxygen to produce electricity without combustion. Their byproduct is water, which means they don’t emit as many greenhouse gases as traditional fossil fuels. Although Icon of the Seas was built to accommodate fuel cells, the batteries have not yet been installed, according to Bloom Energy, the fuel cell manufacturer working with Royal Caribbean. Due to the size and scope of the project, Bloom Energy said it encountered issues with outside suppliers.

Bloom Energy is now focused on resolving issues with the larger fuel systems that are planned for Royal Caribbean’s 5,668-passenger Utopia of the Seas, scheduled to enter service next year. Suminder Singh, vice president of marine at Bloom Energy, said the next opportunity to equip Icon of the Seas with these cells may not come for five years, when the ship is expected to enter dry dock. Royal Caribbean says it may not take that long and the decision will depend on the success of the technology on Utopia.

ICCT’s Mr. Comer said that while fuel cells would be a great option, they emit life-cycle emissions similar to those of conventional petroleum-based fuels if they are manufactured on land in using natural gas. “We need hydrogen produced from renewable electricity,” he said. “And if we had that and used it in fuel cells, we would have virtually no life cycle greenhouse gas emissions.”


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David B.Otero

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