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Capacity of container ships in seaborne trade 1980-2020

In 2020 the world merchant container ship fleet had a capacity of around 275 million metric tons deadweight. As of January 2019, there were 5,152 container ships in the world's merchant fleet.

Container shipping and global trade

As global supply networks consolidate, global value chains increase the need for seaborne transportation of goods. Container shipping is the most cost-effective and environmentally-friendly option to transport goods overseas, despite its considerable environmental footprint. The demand for more seaborne trade calls for larger vessels: the carrying capacity of the global merchant fleet has been increasing steadily during recent decades, reaching over 1.8 billion deadweight tons in 2018. In that same year, the seaborne trade transport volume was roughly 11 billion metric tons, up from 8 billion metric tons in 2008. Besides, the global container shipping volume reached over 800 million twenty-foot equivalent units (TEUs) in 2019, an increase from 622 million TEUs in 2012.

Leading firms

Container shipping a highly capital-intensive economic sector with high potential returns acquired from expanding global demand for the trade of goods. Container lines are constantly under pressure to offer low rates to their customers and maximize vessels' utilization rates. To overcome these challenges, the market has consolidated around three alliances: 2M, Ocean Alliance, and THE Alliance, which together account for 80 percent of the global container market. APM-Maersk, COSCO Shipping, Mediterranean Shipping Company and Hapag-Lloyd are some of the leading container shipping firms globally. Both in terms of the number of ships and TEU capacity, APM-Maersk is the leading container shipping company globally. Its revenue reached almost 39 billion U.S. dollars in the fiscal year of 2019.

Capacity of container ships in seaborne trade from 1980 to 2020 (in million dwt)*

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Release date

November 2020



Survey time period

1980, 1985, 1990, 1995, 2000, 2005, 2010, 2015, 2016, 2017, 2018, 2019, 2020

Supplementary notes

* Beginning-of-year figures; the values for 1980 through 2017 have been extracted from previous editions.
The figures have been rounded.
The unit dwt (deadweight tonnage) is the carrying capacity of a merchant ship.

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Statistics on "Container lines worldwide"

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