Review of maritime transport 2023
Seaborne trade declined by 0.4 per cent in 2022, growth resumes in 2023 Shipping continues to navigate COVID-19 post-pandemic trends, the legacies of the 2021–2022 crunch in global supply chains, a softening in the container shipping market and shifts in shipping and trading patterns arising from the war in Ukraine.
Global shipping continues to confront multiple challenges, including heightened trade policy and geopolitical tensions and is dealing with changes in globalization patterns.
Additionally, shipping must transition to a more sustainable future, decarbonize and embrace digitalization. Being at the intersection of these forces will influence how the sector adapts to the evolving operational and regulatory landscape while continuing to effectively service global trade.
Maritime trade volume contracted marginally by 0.4 per cent in 2022, but UNCTAD projects it will grow by 2.4 per cent in 2023. Indeed, the industry remains resilient and UNCTAD expects continued but moderated growth in maritime trade volume (table 1) for the medium term (2024–2028).
Global shipping is also facing concurrent forces that make balancing supply and demand a cha lenging task for carriers. During 2022, containerized trade, measured in metric tons, declined by 3.7 percent.
UNCTAD projects it will increase by 1.2 per cent in 2023 and expand by over 3 per cent during the 2024–2028 period, although this rate is below the long-term growth of about 7 per cent over the previous three decades.
On the supply side, container shipping may have entered an overcapacity phase, meaning that carriers will aim at managing capacity using tools such as slippage, idling of vessels or demolition.
They also build on the GDP forecast published in the International Monetary Fund, World Economic Outlook, July 2023.
Undoubtedly, the key challenge for the sector is that the maritime industry must embark on transformative journey towards decarbonization while sustaining economic growth.
Balancing environmental sustainability, regulatory compliance and economic demands is vital for a prosperous, equitable and resilient maritime transport future.
Despite uncertainties surrounding future decarbonization measures, including their impact on logistics costs and trade, the sector should remain committed to fleet modernization, renewal of ageing vessel capacity and adopting low-carbon pathways.
Amidst regulatory, commercial and sustainability pressures, meeting carbon emission targets is a formidable yet positive challenge.
Developing regions, including small island developing States (SIDS) and least developed countries (LDCs), may face higher impacts due to a limited capacity to mitigate higher logistics costs.
Starting in early 2022, seaborne trade, in particular dry bulk and tanker shipments, has been impacted by the war in Ukraine.
The war led to changes in shipping patterns and increased the distances travelled for commodities, especially oil and grain. Growth in ton-miles exceeds growth in tons in 2022, 2023 and for 2024 projections.
In 2022, oil and gas trade volumes witnessed robust annual growth rates, of 6 per cent and 4.6 per cent, respectively.
The increase can be attributed to heightened demand for fuel as the pandemic eased
and related restrictions were lifted. As spending on energy-intensive services like transport and travel gradually recovered, a return to normalcy contributed to the surge in oil demand.
In contrast, containerized and dry bulk shipments declined in 2022. Weakened containerized trade reflects the slowdown in global economic growth, high inflation and normalizing of demand after the unusual surge during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Port calls follow these trends in trade, dropping significantly at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Expanding distances for oil and grain cargo
In 2023, oil cargo distances reached long-term highs (figure 3), driven by disruptions from the war in Ukraine. Crude oil and refined products travelled longer distances, as the Russian Federation sought new export markets for its cargo and Europe looked for alternative energy suppliers.Passenger ships
Shipments of grains travelled longer distances in 2023 than any other year on record. Although grainshipments from Ukraine resumed in 2022 thanks to the Black Sea Initiative, several grain-importing countries had to rely on alternative grain exporters.
They are instead buying from the United States ofAmerica, or Brazil, which requires longer hauls.
Containerized trade distances have tumbled since 2020 but increased marginally in 2023. Intra-Asian containerized trade, which accounts for the majority of intraregional trade, saw its share increase over the years.
As intra-Asian trade is carried over shorter distances, the average distances travelled per ton of container cargo of global containerized trade are relatively low.
The predominance of intra-Asian containerized trade flows reflects global manufacturing patterns with China continuing to serve as the leader in global manufacturing, supported by neighbouring East Asian countries.
It also reflects the growing participation of several East Asian countries in regional and global value chains.
Container shipping connectivity remains below pre-COVID-19 levels in small island developing States.
In the second quarter of 2023, the most-connected economies as measured by the Liner Shipping Connectivity Index (LSCI) were China, followed by the Republic of Korea, Singapore, Malaysia and the United States. In Europe, Spain, the Kingdom of the Netherlands and Belgium, saw their LSCI increase over this period, while the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland saw its LSCI decline slightly.
Most regions recovered in terms of COVID-19 pandemic disruptions and shipping connectivity. By the second quarter of 2023, regional averages for the LSCI in Asia, Latin America and the Caribbean and Oceania reached record highs.
Meanwhile, the average LSCI for Africa also increased, but remained below its pre-pandemic values. North America and Europe both saw their average LSCI drop in 2022, only recording a recovery in the second quarter of 2023.
Regional variations reflect the demand and supply dynamics during and after the pandemic. Asia increased its container trade activity, including intraregional traffic.
Europe and North America initially experienced a surge in demand and fleet deployment which subsided as the market stabilized. In contrast, Africa found itself in a middle ground, without a post-COVID-19 boom nor a subsequent weakening. SIDS showed initial signs of recovery in their LSCI but have not yet returned to pre-pandemic le els.
During the pandemic, SIDS in the Indian Ocean, Africa and the Caribbean experienced a decline in LSCI.
This was attributed to ships being redeployed to more lucrative European and North American import markets, as well as reduced demand in tourism-dependent island economies.
In 2023, SIDS serving as regional trans-shipment centres, such as Jamaica and the Dominican Republic, resumed their long-term growth trajectory in connectivity, building on their trans-shipment business.
However, other SIDS serving as regional hubs, notably Bahamas and Mauritius, have yet to fully recover from the impact of the pandemic.
A slow growing fleet, ageing ships and the challenges ahead
As of January 2023, the world fleet consisted of 105,493 vessels of 100 gross tons and above.
In 2022, capacity expanded at an annual rate of 3.2 per cent with overall tonnage hitting 2.27 billiondead weight tons.
The container fleet capacity saw an increase of 3.9 per cent, followed by oil tanker fleet growth (3.4 per cent).
Meanwhile, bulk carrier capacity grew at a moderated rate of 2.8 per cent and gas carriers experiencedthe highest growth, at 5 per cent.
In terms of tonnage delivered in 2022, dry bulk carriers took the lead, followed by oil tankers and container vessels. China, the Republic of Korea and Japan were the top shipbuilding countries, accounting for a significant 93 per cent of total tonnage delivered.
Over the years, global fleet capacity expansion has seen its ups and downs, reflecting business cycles and trends in shipping, shipbuilding and financing.
Between 2005 and 2010, the average annual growth of global dead weight tonns was robust, at 7.1 per cent.
However, since the 2007–2008 financial crisis, growth has slowed to an average of 4.9 per cent between 2011 and 2023 due, among other fa tors, to consolidation in shipbuilding and downsizing of the ship financing market.
Since the pandemic, fleet growth has further slowed, averaging 3.1 per cent per year.
The global fleet is also ageing. At the start of 2023, commercial ships had an average age of 22.2 years, slightly higher than the previous year. Compared to a decade ago, the global fleet has aged by an average of two years, with over half of the fleet now exceeding 15 years of age.