Cruise companies: stop fobbing us off with false pollution solutions

By Carly Hicks, Chief Strategy and Impact Officer & Legal Director at Opportunity Green

At Opportunity Green, we use law, policy and economics to take bold climate action and we believe that using the law can help us to speed up decarbonisation pathways.

Greenwashing is increasingly a key area of focus for regulators everywhere. Companies are facing civil and even criminal liability where their environmental claims are shown to be misleading. Draft legislation sitting on the table in Brussels will lay down requirements for all environmental claims made by companies directed at EU consumers. In the UK, the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) and the Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) are actively investing in a number of companies and industries for misleading green advertising.

In that context, the legal team at Opportunity Green conducted an in-depth investigation into some of the worlds’ biggest cruise companies and their advertisement of liquefied natural gas, or fossil LNG. The results led us to file a series of advertising standards complaints against some of the biggest cruise companies in the world for alleged greenwashing.

Sensational ads are a smokescreen

Here are just a couple of examples of the ads we looked at:

Our newest ship, Costa Smerelda, will use Liquified Natural Gas (LNG) to reduce gas emissions and help protect the planet

Meeting the desires of a booming cruise market, while also working to protect our environment!

It sounds great, doesn’t it? Indeed, when fossil LNG is used as a fuel in cruise ships, burning it releases lower nitrous oxide and sulphur oxide emissions into the air than traditional fuels. This is important when these vast vessels spend a lot of time docked and idling in ports across the world, with their enormous smokestacks churning out gases and other ultrafine particles into the atmosphere.

These air quality benefits, plus the fact that using LNG results in less carbon dioxide emissions when it is burned on ships, have been capitalised on by some of the biggest international cruise companies. The likes of Carnival Corporation & plc, MSC Cruises, and Royal Caribbean Group are widely advertising their new LNG-ready ships as being ‘clean’, ‘green’ and ‘eco-friendly’, and their cruise holidays as ‘sustainable’.

The problem is, these sensational claims don’t tell the full truth. While there might be some air quality benefits to using LNG in ports, the “booming cruise market” coming in and out of Europe’s ports means that port pollution, its effect of that on port communities, is still an enormous air quality issue. Simply swapping in LNG may improve that, but it won’t solve it.

If air pollution in ports is the concern, the most ‘sustainable’ thing to do is to reduce cruise traffic into them. As Transport & Environment reported, Venice – formerly the most polluted port in Europe – dropped 40 places on the list of most polluted ports in Europe since introducing a ban on large cruise ships.

And there’s a more fundamental problem. While fossil LNG may offer some limited benefits in terms of air pollution and help companies meet International Maritime Organization sulphur reduction targets, its use in cruise ships has a devastating overall climate impact. If we think about the effect of LNG on climate ‘air quality’, the benefits rapidly evaporate. They certainly don’t tally up with the sensational advertising claims we have seen.

Why does methane matter?

LNG consists primarily of methane, an extremely powerful greenhouse gas (GHG), which has climate impacts over 80 times greater than carbon dioxide over a 20-year period. Methane is responsible for about 30% of the heating effect of climate change. It leaks into the atmosphere through the entire lifecycle of fossil LNG, and the leakage is particularly bad from the type of engines used by cruise ships. As a result, when used in cruise ships, fossil LNG can even lead to overall increased lifecycle greenhouse gas emissions compared to conventional fuels.

The International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has said that “strong, rapid and sustained” cuts to methane emissions are needed to keep the Paris Agreement 1.5°C temperature goal within reach, as well as improve air quality by reducing global surface ozone. Yet, as a result of investments in LNG across the cruise industry, methane emissions in European Exclusive Zones increased fivefold between 2019 and 2022. Three out of four major cruise operators are currently investing in fossil LNG, and 61% of cruise ships currently on the order books will rely on fossil LNG as primary propulsion. Alarm bells must be ringing.

But not in the cruise industry, where as a holidaymaker you’d be forgiven for believing that taking a cruise on a fossil LNG-powered ship was practically climate action. At Opportunity Green, we knew this was a problem, which is why we wanted to research the practice in more detail. We were astonished to uncover how systemic this type of advertising is across a large part of the cruise industry.

How we are being greenwashed

This advertising makes a difference. Cruises are a popular choice of holiday in the UK. In 2022, British and Irish passengers took 1.7 million cruises, and 20.4 million people took a cruise worldwide. Data from the Cruise Line International Association (CLIA) also shows that 76% of British cruise passengers who sailed in the past 12 months said they were ‘much more’ or ‘more’ aware of environmental and sustainable tourism. Recent research by McKinsey in the US showed that consumer goods products labelled with ESG-related claims like ‘eco-friendly’ and ‘environmentally sustainable’ saw greater market growth over five years than products that did not make similar claims. The IPCC has noted how corporate advertising strategies have sought to appropriate the emotional power of climate change for the benefit of their own brand building.

It’s clear that sustainability sells. At Opportunity Green we don’t think it’s fair that some of the biggest cruise companies in the world are packaging up a notoriously unsustainable way to travel as the complete opposite. And worse, they are benefitting commercially from doing so.

That is why we have filed a series of advertising standards complaints against some of the worst advertising we’ve seen. This includes cruise companies claiming that fossil-LNG is “a breakthrough green technology”, “among the cleanest fuels in the world”, and that it is a milestone on the “journey to zero emissions operations”. We want to hold these companies to account and stop them misleading consumers about the climate impact of their holiday.

It’s time to call cruise companies out

It is not ok to mislead consumers about the true climate effect of fossil LNG and we want to make that clear to cruise companies. Not only that, but we will not enable them to avoid scrutiny and corporate responsibility through greenwashing.  

We believe that using the legal system to shine a light on greenwashing is important to stop companies misleading consumers about the products they buy. It also matters because this tactic enables companies to push the responsibility of climate change elsewhere, and satisfy increasing investor interest in corporate climate mitigation efforts, while continuing with more-or-less business as usual. The most blatant examples of these attempts to deflect responsibility from company to consumers we saw were from Royal Caribbean, who encouraged customers to enjoy “zero-carbon outdoor fun” by doing a few laps around the onboard jogging track, and to consider changing energy supplier to one reliant on renewable energy.

Greenwashing is pervasive across a number of industries; the CMA in the UK is currently investigating the fashion and consumer goods industries and is likely to open future investigations, while the ASA deals with complaints of greenwashing made against companies ranging from Shell to the manufacturers of bamboo toothbrushes.

As consumers, we must try to be alive to what companies are trying to sell us, and how. Business leaders must be honest with themselves and their investors about the challenges they face in mitigating and adapting to climate change, and seek real, positive alternatives. The law is clear: misleading consumers is not ok, and as climate lawyers we will use legal action where companies don’t behave responsibly. The world deserves better than smokescreen solutions.

Download Opportunity Green’s report (Un)Sustainable from Ship to Shore for more details on how fossil LNG is being widely promoted as a ‘climate-friendly’ alternative shipping fuel in the cruise industry. 




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