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Ocean shipping worldwide - statistics & facts

Ocean shipping is an integral part of the supply chain for most industries, making it a backbone of global trade. It is estimated that an overwhelming majority of goods, around 80 percent, are transported by ships. The volume of seaborne trade has been showing a growing trend since 1990. Between 1990 and 2020, the volume of cargo transported by ships more than doubled, from four to nearly 10.7 billion tons. Hand in hand with the rise in seaborne trade goes the increasing capacity of the global merchant fleet. Between 2013 and 2020, the capacity of the worldwide merchant fleet grew by about 37 percent, reaching almost two million deadweight tons in 2020.

Despite these developments, the COVID-19 pandemic caused severe disruptions to the ocean shipping industry, affecting every link in the global supply chain. As a result, the volume of cargo transported by ships in 2020 shrank by about four percent compared with 2019.

Impact of COVID-19 on the industry

The COVID-19 pandemic hit the global shipping industry especially hard. Ports had to deal with closures resulting in congestions, labor shortages, and blank sailings. At the same time, container carriers struggled with capacity utilization and ship delays, bringing schedule reliability of major container ship operators below 40 percent for most of 2021. On top of that, freight rates have skyrocketed, putting pressure on industries that rely on exports or imports of commodities and goods. In turn, consumers all around the globe are forced to bear the rising costs of transport in increasing prices, with the inhabitants of small island developing states being affected the most.

However, with freight rates reaching record-high figures in 2021 and 2022, container carriers were winners of the latest turmoil in the ocean shipping industry. In 2021, container shipping companies recorded profits amounting to 110 billion U.S. dollars, more than double the profit generated in the previous decade. This new influx of money enables container carriers to invest in expanding their fleets by ordering new ships to be built. It is projected that in 2022 and 2023, the capacity of the global container fleet will increase by 4.5 and 7.5 percent, respectively.

China as the shipbuilding powerhouse

Aside from being home to the busiest container ports worldwide, China has also been the global leader in shipbuilding since 2010, exporting mainly bulk carriers, oil carriers, and container ships. Over the past years, the demand for container ships of increasingly larger sizes has been going up. It is expected that, over time, the higher capacity of container ships will lead to a smaller number of vessels in the worldwide fleet. By December 2021, there were about 5,400 container ships in the global merchant fleet.

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