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Movers & Shakers: Daniel Skjeldam on the green cruise industry of tomorrow

December 16, 2019
By The Explorer

DAN & ZORA AVILA/Hurtigruten

The head of the world’s greenest cruise line says industry and authorities both have to get their act together if future generations are to enjoy the benefits of the ocean.

High emissions, local air pollution and an endless hoard of tourists – the cruise industry has been peppered with criticism in recent years. But it does not have to be that way, according to Daniel Skjeldam, CEO of the Norwegian expedition cruise line Hurtigruten.

“You could prohibit the use of heavy oil as fuel, and you could require ships to be emission-free when sailing into UNESCO World Heritage destinations. I think that would be relatively straightforward,” he says.

While waiting for changes in regulations, Hurtigruten has taken matters into its own hands. The company is investing heavily and uncompromisingly in sustainability. It has, for instance, phased out all use of heavy oil, which is the cheapest, most widely used, and by far the most polluting fuel for cruise ships.

Hurtigruten is also turning to new technologies to reduce its carbon footprint. The company has recently signed the largest contract for liquefied biogas (LBG) in the history of the shipping industry, with the Norwegian company Biokraft. Biokraft operates the world’s largest LBG plant, which produces fuel from locally sourced biowaste, including aquaculture waste. Hurtigruten is using roughly USD 88 million to retrofit its older vessels to run on liquefied natural gas (LNG), LBG or biodiesel. Moreover, the company has eliminated almost all single-use plastics from its 17 ships.

The jewels in the company’s crown, however, are the world’s first battery-hybrid cruise ships – which will reduce fuel consumption and carbon emissions by more than 20 per cent compared with other vessels of their class. The MS Roald Amundsen is already in operation. The MS Fridtjof Nansen is under construction in Norway and scheduled for launch in 2020.

Our emission cuts are only one part of the equation. It is just as important to show the rest of the industry that this is entirely feasible.

Daniel Skjeldam, CEO of Hurtigruten

Out with old thinking

If it is so easy for a cruise operator to reduce its carbon footprint, why have more companies not jumped on the bandwagon?

“First of all, you have to make an active choice. We have many highly engaged employees and our expeditions mostly go to places where you see the impacts of environmental damage first. When you see first-hand how animal life in the Arctic and the Antarctic is being harmed by climate change and plastic pollution due to emissions from other parts of the world, it affects your willingness for change,” he says.

Skjeldam also thinks the cruise industry lacks the capacity to innovate.

To put it bluntly: many of the companies in this industry are led by men over 60. I would go as far as to say that management teams that are made up solely of men over 60 will never have even one innovative thought among them.

Daniel Skjeldam

“I think innovation is directly connected to diversity in an organisation. In Norway, we’ve traditionally been good at this. Women make up 50 per cent of Hurtigruten’s management team and are represented in 44 per cent of all main functions.”

One excuse Skjeldam often hears is that it is impossible for the cruise industry – and the shipping industry in general – to introduce new fuel technologies because they are saddled with their old ships for many years to come. The argument goes as follows: a vessel represents an enormous investment. Because most vessels have an estimated lifetime of 50 years, not much can be done before the vessel’s utility value expires.

“It’s just rubbish that some ships are too old to be part of the solution. We have managed to retrofit ships that are nearly 30 years old.”

He also thinks that the cruise industry has to move away from “bigger is better” thinking.

“I believe the entire industry made a giant collective mistake when they went for ships with 5 000–8 000 guests. More and more regions around the world are asking whether the value created from these visits is worth the ecological and social footprint associated with such enormous ships.”

The MS Roald Amundsen in Antarctica – a place where the negative impacts of climate change are seen first.

DAN & ZORA AVILA/Hurtigruten

Regulations are lagging behind

Major ambitions aside, Skjeldam admits that Hurtigruten’s activities are a source of emissions – and will continue to be so for a number of years to come.

“I don’t believe that the solution is to stop travelling. We are going to become completely emission-free, and if it had been technically possible to do so today, we would do it. But developments take time – and our aim is always to remain at the forefront, pulling the industry in the direction it needs to go.”

According to Skjeldam, sustainability will become synonymous with sensible business practice.

“We see that our guests are looking for companies that take sustainability seriously – much more than many cruise lines think. In the future, neither guests nor investors will choose companies that are contributing to destroying the planet, and those who don’t take this seriously will be ‘dead’ within 15 years,” he predicts.

He points out that the regulatory framework – both nationally and internationally – is lagging far behind.

“The Norwegian Government is on the right track by prohibiting emissions in all World Heritage fjords as of 2026. Although I believe this could have been done earlier and that it should apply to the entire Norwegian coastline. Heavy oil should also be banned along the coastline.”

Norway should take more responsibility

To achieve its objectives, Hurtigruten has entered into collaboration with other Norwegian ocean pioneers, such as BlueEye Robotics and Brim Explorer.

“I would like to see more small Norwegian companies with even higher ambitious. We have so many startups with good ideas which could be more concerned with taking over the world,” says Skjeldam.

The fact that Norway is a small country with a small market does not mean much in this respect.

“We’re punching far above our weight, at least when it comes to the ocean. We are an ocean nation to the core, a country that has earned its livelihood from fishing and shipping since the dawn of industry. We develop the most advanced ocean technology, and thanks to our oil fund, we are one of the world’s largest investors. Combined with our shipping banks, which finance ships around the world, we can exert massive pressure.”

He is therefore very positive to the Norwegian Government’s establishment of an international high-level panel on sustainable ocean economy. But he thinks that the Norwegian authorities can take on even greater responsibility for keeping the ocean healthy.

“We ought to set an example by prohibiting the use of heavy oil along the entire coastline and making our fjords as emission-free as possible. As an offshore nation, we should also prohibit oil exploration along the Arctic ice edge.”

“Taken together, these actions can have an impact far beyond Norway’s borders – and we can start today,” he concludes.

The MS Roald Amundsen is the world’s first battery-hybrid cruise ship, reducing fuel consumption and carbon emissions by more than 20 per cent.

DAN & ZORA AVILA/Hurtigruten

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