Sustainable ships: The world’s most environmentally conscious cruise

Editor’s Note: (Monthly Ticket is a CNN Travel series that spotlights some of the most fascinating topics in the world of travel. In February, we explore the people, places and journeys working to make tourism more sustainable.)

(CNN) For travelers who love to cruise but also consider themselves environmentally friendly, the concept of “green” cruising may seem counterintuitive.

Sustainability challenges abound in an industry known for its carbon-spewing vessels, excess waste production (spanning trash, sewage and gray water), and port overtourism—not to mention environmental violations that have resulted in well-publicized fines.

But as stricter regulations and global environmental standards set in – and consumers increasingly demand cleaner, greener holidays – there are cruise lines out there putting in the hard work to make experiences at sea significantly more sustainable.

“All cruise lines are investing in green initiatives, from looking at carbon footprints to refining emissions. It’s top of mind for every cruise line,” explains Colleen McDaniel, editor-in-chief of cruise review website Cruise Critic.

And today, basic sustainability practices like banning plastic straws or reusing bedding are simply not enough to move the needle. The real innovators are the lines most aggressively chasing decarbonisation targets via technological breakthroughs, particularly around cleaner alternative fuels and greener port infrastructure.

The cruise industry carried nearly 30 million passengers and contributed over $154 billion to the global economy pre-pandemic in 2019; despite the pandemic hiccups, it is on track to surpass those numbers by the end of the year. Cruise supporters say that cruising can be a force for good, by supporting local economies and inspiring cruisers’ sense of environmental and cultural awareness.

Yet the industry’s reliance on polluting heavy fuel oil (HFO) for its ships has put it at odds with the UN’s global goal of net zero emissions by 2050. Currently, cruise ships and other maritime vessels are responsible for nearly 3% of global greenhouse gas emissions each year. Considered worse than flying in terms of carbon emissions per passenger, a report by Pacific Standard revealed that a person’s average carbon footprint triples in size while on a cruise.

Ocean-going member cruise lines of the Cruise Lines International Association (CLIA), the largest trade association for the cruise industry, have committed to reach net zero carbon emissions by 2050, and to reduce carbon rates by 40% by 2030 (compared to 2008 levels).

However, as these targets are targeted, industry watchdogs say that greenwashing is rampant. “A lot of the sustainability claims are just greenwashing or are the same kinds of ‘sustainability’ measures that have been happening for years in land-based tourism,” said Marcie Keever, director of the environmental group Friends of the Earth, which publishes an annual cruise line “report card.”

Examples of this can be found when lines look to replace carbon- and sulphur-releasing HFO with cleaner, alternative fuels. Lower-carbon liquefied natural gas (LNG) is widely being touted as a “jet-burned” fuel solution, with more than half of the new cruise ships on order with CLIA members having LNG for their primary propulsion.

Nevertheless, environmentalists and scientists warn that LNG is a limited and polluting fossil fuel that can cause even more environmental damage than HFO in the long term.

Simply put, “LNG is a dirty fuel,” says Dr. Mark Jacobson, director of the Atmosphere/Energy Program at Stanford University, and author of “No Miracles Needed: How Today’s Technology Can Save Our Climate and Clean Our Air.” He says that while LNG’s “direct air pollution emissions are less than heavy fuel oil, they are still significant — and the upstream emissions and footprint are greater than heavy fuel,” due to factors such as unsustainable extraction practices (such as fracking) and methane byproducts.

Experts like Jacobson say the industry’s focus should be more fully on new zero-emission energy technologies. “The far cleaner solutions for ships are battery electricity and green hydrogen fuel cell electricity,” says Jacobson, citing that “in both cases, all emissions from the ship—except for water vapor in the case of hydrogen fuel cells—are eliminated.”

CLIA reports that more than 15% of cruise ships debuting in the next five years will be equipped to include hydrogen fuel cells or electric batteries.

Another promising sustainability development is the industry’s move towards zero-emission docking. The vast majority of today’s new ships are being designed with the capacity to shut down their fuel-burning engines and plug into the local grid while in port – reducing air pollution and related health issues in the process. The caveat: Only 29 of the 1,500 ports visited by CLIA ships currently offer compliant infrastructure.

While there may still be a long way to go — “cruising continues to be one of the dirtiest vacation choices,” warns Keever — here are five cruise lines that are leading the pack with their eco-conscious initiatives.


Hurtigruten was the world’s first cruise line to phase out single-use plastic on board.

This 130-year-old Norwegian adventure travel company has a sustainability ethos at its core. Hurtigruten is a leader in green energy and sidelined HFO for its small ship fleet over a decade ago, in favor of alternative, greener fuels such as marine gasoline and biofuel.

In 2019, they launched the world’s first electric hybrid battery-powered cruise ship (and are in the process of converting the rest of their expedition fleet to hybrid battery power), with plans for the world’s first zero-emission cruise ship by 2030.

They have also activated shore power connection for the entire fleet to eliminate emissions while in port, and were the first cruise line to phase out single-use plastics on board.


Ponant, the first cruise line to achieve Green Marine certification, also offsets 100% of its emissions.

French luxury line Ponant rolled out a low-emissions hybrid expedition ship (running on LNG and electric battery power), the 245-passenger Le Commandant Charcot, in 2021, and has plans for a “zero-impact” ship by 2025.

Ponant, the first cruise line to achieve Green Marine certification, also offsets 100% of its emissions.

In addition, all Ponant ships are equipped with shore-to-ship power connections in port; the line has stopped using single-use plastic; and environmental impact studies are carried out before designing an itinerary.

Star Clippers

Star Clippers’ tall ships operate exclusively on wind power up to 80% of the time.

Sometimes, when it comes to sustainability, what’s old is new again.

Monaco-based sailing company Star Clippers operates a trio of tall 166- to 227-passenger sailing ships that operate exclusively on wind power up to 80% of the time (and use low-sulfur gas oil otherwise).

Small ship sizes mean less overall impact, as well as access to less touristic ports – in Costa Rica, for example, Star Clippers was the first cruise line to be certified with the “Pura Vida Pledge” – endorsed by the Costa Rica Tourism Board in recognition of their eco-credentials .

Havila Voyages

Havila Voyages’ hybrid ships can operate on battery power for periods of up to four hours.

This Norwegian cruise line, which debuted in 2022, has launched two of four planned hybrid ships, which run itineraries along Norway’s coast.

Havila Voyages has the largest passenger ship batteries at sea, allowing their ships to sail – for periods of up to four hours – into the country’s UNESCO-protected fjords, quietly and emission-free.

In addition, the batteries can be recharged in port with clean hydropower from the local grid, and are strong enough to power the ships while they are docked. While the ships currently also use LNG power, Havila aims to eventually run emission-free, with vessels designed to switch to hydrogen power when the technology is available.

Explore Journeys

Explora Journeys will launch the world’s first LNG-powered vessel with hydrogen fuel cells in 2027.

This new luxury cruise brand from Swiss-based shipping company MSC Group launches this summer, but will really make waves in 2027 when it debuts the world’s first LNG-powered vessel with hydrogen fuel cells, along with methane release-reducing technology.

Working with Italian shipbuilders Fincantieri, Explora Journeys’ pioneering ships (the first of two planned for the new line) will have significantly reduced greenhouse gas emissions while at sea and emit little more than water vapor and heat when not in port .

Other highlights for the brand include a one-time plastic ban and underwater noise reduction certification (so as not to disturb marine wildlife).

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