Just cruisin’


It’s one of the great aspirational vacations: visiting the major cities of the world while living in luxury aboard a cruise liner. These days, with satellite TV you don’t even have to miss the big game. It’s just a shame about the environmental issues.

Cruise lines are working hard to improve their image. Advanced water purification systems and engines that burn biodiesel are making a dent in their environmental impact, which can be considerable. According to data recently released by cruise line owner Carnival, the carbon footprint of a trip works out to over 400 lbs of carbon per passenger per day.That’s equivalent to burning about 20 gallons of gasoline for every day of your journey. On a per mile basis, this is over three times higher than the carbon footprint of long-distance plane travel.

Somehow I’d assumed that the slower seafaring trip would be more environmentally efficient than the high speed airborne equivalent. But the numbers tell a different story. A popular cruise route is from London, England to Lisbon, Portugal. The chart shows a comparison of the emissions from one traveler using different methods of transportation:

Of course, the comparison isn’t completely fair. Cruise ships are more than just transportation. They’re also entertainment, lodging, dining, and all the other elements of a vacation. If passengers weren’t enjoying these amenities on a ship, they’d be enjoying them on land instead, and still using energy to do so.

Nevertheless, cruises are undeniably carbon intensive. All the more so if you have to fly to meet your boat. We don’t begrudge anybody a fun vacation. But understanding your impact is important, and figuring out ways to reduce your footprint is vital.

More efficient engines and alternative fuels are great steps forward for these ships. I’m sure there are also opportunities for solar energy and more recycling — your suggestions are welcome!

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  1. Eric Hansel - February 13, 2008

    EGM Green has been working with RCCL to bring sustainable gaming tables(poker, black jack…)to its floating casino floors. EGM Green is the only company in the world that designs and manufactures Eco-Friendly casino products, and is a business Terra Pass member. I look forward to speaking with more and more casinos and floating casinos about their corporate social responsibility intiatives and how EGM Green can fit in. Earn LEED points for your poker tables!
    Have fun!
    Eric Hansel
    EGM Green

  2. GreenDivaMeg - February 13, 2008

    wow. i’m not much of a cruise-ship party girl, but i’m kind of stunned by the statistics! actually, it was ed begley, jr. that explained to me during an interview last summer, that airplanes actually do MORE damage than the amount of carbon they release because they are doing it so high in the atmosphere. i hadn’t thought of that aspect. he said there are no trees or other things to potentially absorb some of the release that goes on down here. not that that is okay either, but i guess it speaks to the more direct damage done to the upper layers of our atmosphere (the ozone in particular i guess). i’m not very scientific, but it does kind of make sense. do these statistics take this into consideration?
    and if the cruise ship industry can do biodiesel and make some of these other changes, i hope they do it soon!

  3. ecodrew - February 13, 2008

    Is Terrapass working on an offset calculator for cruises? I sure hope so, and that it will include the other items you mentioned…that a cruise ship is also dining, lodging, and entertainment rolled into one. I would like to see that comparison, and definitely purchase an offset next time I cruise.

  4. Karen - February 13, 2008

    I’m trying to calculate the carbon footprint of passenger and auto ferries in the US. Where did you find the info for the ferries in your chart? I realize that it’s referencing vessels in the the UK and Europe, but it may help me in my research for my thesis. Thanks!

  5. Adam Stein - February 13, 2008

    GreenDivaMeg —
    No, the comparison above doesn’t take into account altitude, which scientists generally do believe amplifies the global warming impact of planes (although there’s no agreement on exactly how much). So the “three times worse” figure should be taken with a grain of salt. But the bigger point doesn’t really change: cruise ships have a large footprint.
    Ecodrew —
    Not presently, but it’s something we’ve discussed. Plenty of people have offset cruises for us by multiplying their days at see by roughly 500 lbs of CO2, and then buying a flight TerraPass.
    Karen —
    We got the figures from the article linked to above. Some googling will probably turn up the original reports.

  6. LuvMyHybrid - February 13, 2008

    Recently, my parents bought me and my family tickets to go on a cruise. I did feel a bit guilty and skeptical about this at first. However, what I learned is that not all cruise ships are created equal. My husband went to a special presentation given by the captain about our ship (RC Jewel of the Sea) which had won “environmental ship of the year” in 2004. The ship was built in the last five years and with the environment in mind. Aboard the ship, all waste (including human waste) is turned into fuel. As the other ships pulled into ports alongside us, truckloads of garbage were unloaded. I did not see one bag of trash unloaded from our ship. While on the top deck, I could see and smell the dirty exhaust from the other ships, but from afar, no black carbon emissions could be seen coming from our ship’s exhaust stacks. I don’t know what kind of carbon footprint was left behind in the end, but at least I felt like an effort is being made (by RC) to lessen the impact.

  7. Alex - February 13, 2008

    Wow, apples and oranges. Why even bother, Telegraph UK? I went and read that article, and emissions from heating/cooling, laundry, cooking, water treatment and food supplies are lumped in with transportation emissions. Presumably once you reach your destination by plane you need to find a hotel and eat somewhere, whereas all the emissions from these would be included in the cruise line’s footprint.
    According to this article, a separate report later this year will break out amount of the footprint that transportation is responsible for. Now that’s useful information. Not this though. Must be a slow news day in foggy Londontown.
    You guys really shouldn’t post links to worthless stories like this, it hurts a cause that I would like to see succeed.

  8. Phil Morton - February 14, 2008

    Does this mean that there are NO good alternatives to flying when you want to cross an ocean? I can cross te US by train if I have the time, but that doesn’t work for getting to Europe to visit relatives.
    Mostly I am learning to give up a sense of Entitlement to travel wherever I want to, but I still have some obligations. Buying carbon offsets is not a real substitute for reducing my consumption.
    Phil Morton,
    Berkeley, CA

  9. Monty - February 14, 2008

    The key is: All things in moderation.
    If you have never been on a cruise, taking that once-in-a-lifetime trip is not the end of the world. Going every year, however, is a very bad idea. In fact, we all need to dramatically reduce our travel and stick to areas close to home. Need to go a distance? Fill up a minivan with six people and drive there. Need to go overseas? Er .. Swim?
    Joking aside, I do think the comparison points are a bit unfair since they are lumping everything into the cruise, not just the travel. As long as trips like that are a once in a lifetime thing, it is probably okay. However, most of our holidays really does need to be focused locally.

  10. Pete - February 14, 2008

    It’s a fair observation that the best comparisons here would probably be other things that you could do for a couple of weeks. And we’d have to include in the calculation all comparable energy uses.
    The best baseline must be staying at home, which for the average American household generates around 12,000 lbs of carbon a year –or 33 lbs per day. The average cruise passenger is responsible for over 400 lbs per day. So, Alex, I don’t think it’s really necessary to wait for the next report to know whether or not cruise ships could improve their environmental footprint. If we keep waiting for more statistics, then we’ll never slow the pace of climate change.
    Phil — as a native Brit I totally share your trans-Atlantic predicament. Limiting trips to those that are necessary is the best we can do. Airlines are getting better at efficiency and environmental awareness, and rewarding those with our business (when we must travel) seems the sensible thing.
    Alex — I won’t get into a fight about whose media is better. But fyi the Telegraph’s circulation is a measly 20% lower than that of the New York Times. Go pick on someone your own size!
    Thanks for all your comments — keep them coming.