Review of maritime transport 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 conflict 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 challenging task for carriers. During 2022, containerized trade, measured in metric tons, declined by 3.7 per cent. 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.

Undoubtedly, the key challenge for the sector is that the maritime industry must embark on a 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 conflict in Ukraine. The conflict 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. Following a year-to-year drop in the first half of 2022, vessel port calls increased in the second half of 2022. Port calls by tankers reached historical highs while calls by bulk carriers returned to their pre-COVID-19 levels; port calls by container ships are yet to return to their 2019 level.

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