Royal Caribbean breaks new ground with its carbon reduction strategies

The brand is exploring how to measure and reduce its carbon footprint while building new ships

Royal Caribbean breaks new ground with its carbon reduction strategies
Royal Caribbean International will be testing fuel cell technology onboard the new Icon of the Seas, which will debut in autumn 2023

By Susan Parker |

Royal Caribbean Group (RCG) has long been a trendsetter in the cruise industry when it comes to building new ships. The company is in the development stage of a project to ascertain how it can construct ships with a lower carbon footprint. Initially, it planned to follow systems such as US Green Building Council’s Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) framework, which is used to help construct sustainable buildings on land. However, RCG soon realised that what happens on land cannot always be easily transferred to sea. 

“We started with the idea that the LEED system could be used to build our ships,” says Tor Svensen, RCG’s senior sustainability advisor. “However, we quite quickly found that it simply couldn’t work with the way cruise ships are built and operated. It would have been very challenging to adapt it, so we threw that idea overboard.” 

The project is a work in progress and RCG is collaborating with both classification society DNV and major shipyard partners to try and develop a suitable system for building more sustainable ships. “We aim to establish a way of measuring the energy and the carbon footprint related to ship construction,” explains Svensen. “As part of that, and as a second phase, we are going to look more closely at the materials we choose too. We want to know what our Scope 3 emissions [those from sources not owned or controlled by RCG] are when we buy a ship, and what the ship’s overall carbon footprint is.”  

The company is keen to identify the baseline emissions from its different newbuilds, so it can set targets for improvements. Svensen, who worked for DNV for many years, believes that if RCG and its partners successfully develop a sustainable building system that works well, it could be turned into a standard for the whole cruise industry to follow.  

The major component of any ship is steel, which is not only used for the structure, but also for multiple other onboard elements, such as engines and pumps. Steel has the advantage of being 100 per cent recyclable, but the disadvantage of having a relatively high carbon footprint. However, Svensen points out that the steel industry is working hard to decarbonise. “It will take time, but the sector is moving away from the traditional methods of production and a growing number of steel mills are developing green steel using renewable energies, such as hydrogen,” he says. “This will bring down the carbon footprint for newbuilds quite significantly. I am quite optimistic that over the next decade or so we will see a big transition in how steel is produced.” 

While sourcing low-emission steel will likely lead to the biggest improvement in reducing a ship’s carbon footprint, Svensen says that shipyards sourcing green energy to use during the construction process will also help. Some have already achieved this, while others are taking steps to do so. 

“After that it is down to finding greener individual components,” says Svensen. “We must reduce emissions, and shipyards also need to be more demanding when asking about the carbon footprint of the materials they are buying. The only way to bring it down is via the supply chain. That is important because if you don’t produce a material yourself, the only thing you can control is to demand it has low emissions when you are making contracts with suppliers.”  

RCG is already making progress with its project to decarbonise the newbuilding process. According to Svensen, thanks to hard work over the past year and a very good response from the shipyards RCG has been able to start defining targets. “Our hope is that, roughly within the next year, we should have a good baseline and framework developed for [Royal Caribbean International’s] Icon of the Seas so that we can start testing,” he says. “This won’t be a certifiable standard immediately. I think we’ll need to produce guidelines first, try them out and come up with a process for verification. Then we’ll test it out on two or three new buildings and maybe it will become a certifiable standard after that.  

“At least from our side we are very open to collaborate and potentially develop this into a universally acceptable framework that the industry can use – not only for cruise, but also for other parts of the shipping sector as well.” 

Svensen is only too aware that when spread over the lifetime of the ship, the carbon footprint generated during the construction phase is a relatively small component compared to its whole operation. However, he says: “It is significant, and we need to try and reduce it. What is important here is that we have to look at the totality of our operation and count emissions from all the components. That is the whole purpose of it.”  

Discussing the lifetime of ships and responsible recycling, Svensen highlights that, during the pandemic, RCG recycled a small number of ships in yards that were certified to handle the materials in a responsible manner. He noted that recycling older vessels is sometimes the greenest option because, even if they are retrofitted, they do not offer the same energy efficiency as newer ships.  

“A new class of ship is generally 20 per cent more energy efficient than the previous class,” he explains. “With rising energy costs and our focus on decreasing emissions, this is going to be an important driver in the cruise industry in terms of fleet renewal in the future.” 

Although there is no single solution, RCG has always worked hard to continually improve the overall efficiency of its new ship designs, focusing on doing as much as it can in the short term to enable the ambitious transition towards a net-zero emission future.  

“There is no silver bullet to decarbonising shipping or achieving low emissions, so we must pursue all possible avenues,” says Svensen. “Every little change contributes to us achieving our ultimate aim. We are working with shipyards closely to achieve these results. It is possible, but it requires high competence and focus.” 

In addition, RCG is testing new and innovative solutions, such as alternative fuels and fuel cells. Silver Nova, a new ship being constructed for RCG brand Silversea Cruises, will use a large onboard fuel cell installation to generate all the electricity it needs in port, so it can switch off its engines. “This is all part and parcel of trying for long-term solutions, but also achieving reductions now,” says Svensen. “It is not easy and we don’t have all the answers, but we are also cautiously optimistic that new solutions will emerge as we go along.” 

This article was first published in the Autumn/Winter 2022 issue of Cruise & Ferry Review. All information was correct at the time of printing, but may since have changed.   

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