Jhe Norwegian designers of the MM130 call her a “revolutionary” ship. The first of 14 hydrogen cruise ships – 130 meters long, 22 meters wide, six decks high and capable of carrying 300 passengers and 100 crew – is expected to hit the water in 2025.
This would be a significant technical milestone for an industry that contributes an unknown but not insignificant amount to the 940 million tonnes of CO2 generated by maritime transport each year, i.e. approximately 2.5% of global emissions.
Northern Xplorer managing director Rolf Sandvik says the ship will be fully sustainable and emissions-free the day it leaves the dock.
“We fully intended to use green hydrogen from our first day of operation,” says Sandvik. “We did not consider using another type of cleaner fuel derived from fossil fuels, such as LNG.
“Major steps are being taken in forming a hydrogen supply chain ecosystem in Norway. The increase in the production of hydrogen and marine batteries is strongly supported by the good will of the Norwegian authorities.
The Norwegian government has limited the number of calls that can be made in World Heritage-protected fjords and has imposed zero-emissions requirements on ships that do so from 2026.
This contrasts sharply with Australia, where the industry is set to come back to life after a two-year hiatus prompted by what the Australian Cruise Association has described as an “ultra-conservative approach to the pandemic and the desire to wipe out the virus. of our country”.
International cruise ships are allowed to return from Sunday, and Australian authorities have opened the doors even wider than before, with plans to open destinations such as Eden on the New Wales south coast of the South to some of the largest ships in the world, capable of carrying up to 6,700 passengers.
As part of NSW Port Authority expansion plans, a curfew on ships docking at Eden between 10 p.m. and 7 a.m. would be lifted, and there would be no restrictions on the number of ships can visit.
Meanwhile in Queensland, the new Brisbane International Cruise Terminal, dubbed the ‘ghost terminal’ after being abandoned in 2020 without accepting a single ship, will open in June under plans for 140 visits a year to ports across the queensland.
The scale of this comeback has raised questions about sustainability and whether an opportunity has been missed to move to a zero-carbon industry.
The return of industry
During the downtime, authorities in some locations worked to address pressing environmental issues.
In March, the NSW Port Authority announced it would install a $60 million ship-to-shore power system at the White Bay terminal in Sydney Harbour, after a 10-year campaign by residents against fumes created by idling ships.
Hooking cruise ships up to a shore power source while they’re docked means they don’t have to run auxiliary motors to keep their electrical systems running.
The system will be operational by 2024 and is expected to be powered entirely by renewable energy, which the port authority says will stop 14,000 tonnes of CO2 to enter the atmosphere each year.
Local state MP Jamie Parker of the Greens told the Inner West Review that running cruise ships 24/7 was ‘like 2,000 cars pumping gas toxic exhaust directly into homes”.
“Sydney has been a dumping ground for the cruise industry’s oldest and dirtiest cruise ships – ships that wouldn’t even be allowed to enter most northern hemisphere ports,” Parker says.
The announcement, he said, ‘catapulted Sydney from the laggard of the international cruise industry to a global leader showcasing environmental best practice’.
But other communities aren’t as optimistic about the industry’s return.
Penny Davidson, of the Jervis Bay Community Cruiseship Coalition on the New South Wales south coast, says residents are still waiting to hear if the pristine bay will be added as a destination.
“The past two years would have been a great time to sort this out and think about how we can protect our marine parks and support any additional tourism if the marine park can support it,” Davidson said.
“When it restarts, the momentum will have started and the industry will obviously be pushing to maximize its opportunities.”
The end of cheap cruising?
With thousands of ships mothballed or retired around the world, the pandemic pause was a rare opportunity for change, says Professor Susanne Becken, who studies sustainable tourism at Griffith University.
“The question is: are they ready?” Becken says. “Sustainable cruising would be the end of cheap cruising, and then you would have to change the business model, because would you do 3,000 people on a boat?”
The combination of cheap fuel and large passenger capacities has allowed companies to offer relatively low ticket prices, but Becken says the need to decarbonise will alter the underlying economics.
“It’s not cheap,” says Becken. “That’s what makes it controversial. It’s kind of like coal – a political hot potato.
“For companies that have invested in these boats, they are on the verge of becoming stranded assets.”
Cruise Lines International Association (Clia) managing director for Australasia, Joel Katz, says operators are already taking steps to end the use of low-grade bunker fuel.
“Cruise lines are investing billions of dollars in ships that deliver greater efficiency and achieve significant emissions reductions as part of the industry’s pursuit of net carbon-neutral cruising by 2050” , Katz said.
Clia members have joined a shipping industry proposal for a $5 billion research fund from the International Maritime Organization to develop fuels such as “biofuels, methanol, ammonia, l ‘hydrogen and electric batteries’.
In the meantime, Katz says, there have been “huge investments” in ships that use liquid natural gas as a “transition fuel.”
“LNG ships are already sailing in some parts of the world and five more are expected to be introduced this year,” he said. “More than half of the newly built ships on order worldwide will use LNG for their main propulsion.”
Since LNG is still a fossil fuel, Becken says even these ships risk becoming stranded assets as green hydrogen technology improves and the world introduces stricter emissions requirements.
She says the industry should follow the example of airports and airlines voluntarily disclosing CO2 emissions.
Without that data, it’s impossible to know the industry’s impact, Becken says, even as it faces other challenges such as bringing renewable energy supplies to ports and production facilities. such as green hydrogen plants.
“There’s no reason the cruise industry can’t do this, develop a hydrogen plant that you can use to make the fuel you need 10 years from now. It is then just an additional cost built into the price of a ticket,” explains Becken.
“There is a lot of resentment against cruise ships. If the industry would come out and say we understand, we know we have to do something, and we put programs like this in place, that would be good for their image.