Interview: ‘Cruise can decarbonise but we need new technologies’

Royal Caribbean Group vice-president and head of ESG Nick Rose tells Ian Taylor he is optimistic the cruise sector can decarbonise but only with the aid of new technologies

Flexibility in the fuels used to power cruise ships will be key to reducing the sector’s emissions, according to Royal Caribbean Group vice-president and head of sustainability Nick Rose.

Different fuels pose different challenges. Rose explained: “From a local emissions standpoint, liquified natural gas (LNG) checks every box. It offers a 98% reduction in sulphur, a 95% reduction in NOx (nitrogen oxides), and PM2.5 [inhalable fine particles] don’t exist. It’s also a step on the way in reducing carbon.”

But he said: “It’s not the only fuel we’re looking at. LNG ships aren’t flexible – they burn diesel or LNG. Biofuels have the shortest ‘runway’ [to wide use].”

The issue with biofuels is sourcing sustainable feedstocks. Rose noted: “The global supply chain of biofuel sources continues to grow, but the number of people looking at these continues to grow. A trial we ran this summer will give insight into how much biofuel needs to be secured because one of the concerns is the supply chain.”

He argued: “The next step will be a ‘net zero’ ship that will likely use methanol or some other alcohol-based fuel, possibly with a form of battery and maybe also hydrogen in a fuel-cell application.”

Royal Caribbean’s goal is to have a zero-carbon ship in operation by 2035. Rose said: “You might think ‘That is 12 years from now’, but it’s not far out when designing a ship. We’re working now to make a decision come 2029 so we have the ship by 2035.”

He explained: “There won’t be one solution. The first net-zero ships will be hybrid with multiple ways of producing, storing and using power. Whatever the energy source, the ship will probably have batteries and shore power and might have fuel cells which burn hydrogen.”

Rose pointed out: “Hybrid ships with some form of battery exist today, and fuel cells are at the forefront of what we’re doing. Methanol engines are coming on but aren’t there yet. The issue is getting this at the right scale. Whatever we build, we need to ensure we can fuel it.”

He argued: “We have a similar kind of path to aviation. Drop-in fuels can help today. Methanol can probably help in the next two to three years. Fuel cells come further down the line. Battery systems could help at peak times.

“Hopefully, by 2050 there will be other technologies we’re not considering today.”

IMO’s ‘slow progress’

The International Maritime Organisation (IMO) has been slow to set emissions-reduction targets for global shipping, delaying investment in the infrastructure needed to decarbonise.

Cruise forms just a small part of global shipping, which is governed by IMO rules and, like aviation, was left out of the 2015 Paris Agreement on climate change – leaving shipping relying on the world’s most carbon-heavy fuels.

An IMO agreement in July did set new goals – calling them “indicative checkpoints” rather than targets – with at least a 20% cut in emissions sought by 2030 and 70% by 2040.

That is an improvement on a 2018 IMO agreement to halve emissions by 2050. But the latest deal does not come into force until 2027 and allows for compliance only when “national circumstances allow”. Critics point out, had the industry been part of the Paris Agreement, the latest IMO agreement would leave shipping on course to break its 2050 ‘carbon budget’ by 2032. Rose acknowledges the slow progress at the IMO.

He explained: “There are geopolitical issues at play. The way the IMO is set up, the way any UN organisation is set up, every member has a vote. If the IMO put a price on carbon – say $50 a tonne – shipping a commodity between the UK and France might cost one or two tonnes of carbon so $100. But if a commodity is shipped between the UK and Chile, travelling 2,700 miles, costing 2,500 tonnes of carbon, the bill adds up. That is the challenge the IMO has to deal with.”

Rose argued: “The way Europe has gone about this is the right approach. They’ve put a price on carbon, but they’ve also incentivised fuel development.

He described the EU’s targets as “a little ambitious”, arguing: “If regulation outpaces technology, it becomes a hinderance. If the timing goes along with the technology, it’s a benefit.” But he insisted: “The way the EU has approached this will push the IMO. Europe is driving the regulatory world.”

Rose added: “The industry is starting to work together. You’re seeing it through some of the bigger partnerships, the global maritime forums, the ‘alphabet soup’ of groups sharing information.

“The more the shipping industry, not just the cruise industry, plays a role in this, the more it will benefit all of us because then we can have investment at a global scale.”

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