Seaborne trade has brought prosperity. How to ensure its sustainability

Shipping and seaports are at the forefront of globalization. This globalization has brought prosperity to consumers and to providers in developed and developing countries alike – the challenge now is to ensure its sustainability.

March 23 2018

Over the last decades, we have seen major shifts on the demand and supply side of ocean shipping. In both cases, shipping and seaports are at the forefront of globalization. Without maritime transport and related developments in transport technologies, in particular containerization, globalisation as we know it would not have materialised. Maritime transport has been instrumental in the leveraging of the international specialisation and division of labour.

From the consumer perspective, maritime transport is the main channel that promoted access to wide ranging products at competitive prices. A German consumer benefits from Chilean wine whose shipping from Valparaiso costs less than the chaptalization of wine along the Mosel; and the Chilean consumer benefits from German cars assembled all over the world. Global trade has expanded the range of choices and lifted the standards of living everywhere.

A mirror image exists on the supply side of maritime transport services. Over the years, the production and delivery of maritime transport services have become increasingly fragmented and globalized. The supply of maritime transport services is also shaped by an international specialisation with shipbuilding, vessel registration, seafaring, port operations, insurance, financial services, to name but a few, being supplied by different countries. There is probably no other industry where inputs are provided by such a vast range of providers from so many different economies. This globalization has brought prosperity to consumers and to providers in developed and developing countries alike – the challenge now is to ensure its sustainability.

Seaborne trade: The demand for maritime transport services
The geography of trade has given a new role to developing countries. While in the past developing countries were mere providers of raw materials (large volumes at low unit values), today as a group, developing countries, including China, are emerging as important importers and exporters of goods by sea. Developing countries have reversed the historical situation with their seaborne imports in volume terms exceeding their exports (Figure 1). Emerging economies are increasingly participating in globalized production and expanding their industrial production and infrastructure development. As a result, they are more and more importing oil, iron ore and intermediate goods, to produce and export higher value manufactured capital and consumer goods. They are also increasing their imports of manufactured and consumer goods, with the rise of the middle class in many developing regions of Asia, the Middle East and Africa.

The type of goods traded has shifted from mostly liquid bulk commodities (e.g. oil) to more dry bulk goods (e.g. iron ore, coal and grain) and containerised goods (e.g. parts and components, intermediate and final consumer goods) which has been the fastest growing market segment since the 1990ss. Improved energy efficiency (e.g. Europe) and the discovery of new oil and gas resources (e.g. USA) in traditional oil importing markets have altered tanker trade flows and direction (crude oil, refined petroleum products and gas). China, in particular with its important production and consumption of steel associated with its growth model and its heavy investment in infrastructures, have fuelled growth of dry bulk commodities such as coal and iron ore. The changing geography of trade has resulted in an increase in trade measured in tonne-miles as distances travelled have also increased. For example, iron ore flows from Brazil to China. Meanwhile, globalisation of production processes supported by the container revolution resulted in exponential growth of containerized consumer goods from China and other Asian countries to the United States and Europe (Figure 2).

Globalized production of goods requires logistics, including transport. Within logistics expenditures, we observe a growing share of transport. This does not mean that transport has become more expensive – on the contrary, it has become more fuel efficient and less costly – but rather that shippers buy more transport to avoid having to pay for inventory holding. While we do not have global statistics on this distribution, data for the United States is quite illustrative. Still in 1980, the US economy spent more on inventory holding than on transport within total logistics costs, while in 2016 the share of transport expenditure was more than double that on inventory holding (Figure 3).

The supply of maritime transport
The demand for containerized trade is also reflected on the supply side of the world fleet, as multipurpose general cargo ships are replaced by container ships (Figure 4). The container has rightly been called the “humble hero” by The Economist: “Containers have been more important for globalisation than freer trade” as containerization has significantly increased transport efficiency by unitizing general cargo. Our research confirms that countries that are better connected to the global liner shipping network also report higher trade volumes and lower trade costs.

A typical maritime transport operation easily involves inputs from more than a dozen countries. The ship may be built in the Republic of Korea, financed by a German bank, flying the flag of Panama, manned by Philippine seafarers who are employed via a crewing agent from Cyprus. The beneficial owner could be a Greek national living in London, who charters his ship out to a Danish liner company. He may insure his ship in the United Kingdom and have it classed in Norway. The ship could be transporting containers that are built in Shanghai, with cargo exported from Japan to the Netherlands, arranged by a freight forwarder from Switzerland. On its journey, the ship may bunker fuel in Singapore, and the container could be transhipped in Djibouti, in a container terminal that is operated by Dubai Ports. At the end of its life, this ship will likely be scrapped and recycled in Bangladesh or India. Yes, the iPhone and the Barbie-Doll are also “made in the world”, but I don’t think that any industry is as truly globalized as shipping. Figure 5 depicts, by way of example, the ratio of the “foreign” to the “national” flagged fleet. This ratio more than quadrupled over the last 3 decades.

The future of maritime transport
In spite of the recent rise in trade protectionism trends arising from the “me first” policies, I am optimistic (or should I say hopeful?) that reason will prevail and that international trade supported by a strong rule-based multilateral trading system and efficient maritime transportation systems will continue to provide prosperity for almost all.

But there is a catch. How sustainable is maritime transportation in the current context of its globalised supply and demand dynamics?

Ports in particular are confronted with additional demands as regards the sustainability of their operations. Ports need to minimise social and environmental externalities. Many port cities are among the most polluted places to live, as ships burn heavy oil, and delivering trucks produce noise and cause traffic congestions. Port cities need to adopt long term perspectives for their waterfront properties – and using prime land for cargo handling may not always be the best option. In addition, ports need to be resilient in the face of disruptions and damages caused by natural disasters and climate change impacts.  The true cost of port operations need to be assessed, including external costs.

While important initiatives already exist, shipping needs to play a larger role in addressing global warming and contribute to mitigating the carbon emissions that are causing climate change. Shipping emits far less carbon dioxide (CO2) per ton-mile than any other mode of transport, but then due to its sheer volume it also produces many ton-miles. Ideally – and I need to highlight again that this blog-post is a personal perspective – the industry should be charged by its main regulatory body not per ship tonnage (as is currently the case), but per tonne of CO2 emission. I like the way the IMO is financed; unlike most other UN agencies, it is not financed proportional to the GDP of its members, but proportional to the tonnage registered under the members’ flags. Like this, Panama, Liberia and the Marshall Islands pay for the largest share of the IMO budget – and in the end, this is passed on to the ship-owner, who in turn passes this on to the shipper, who will charge the consumer. This is a good established mechanism that could be expanded to also internalize the external costs of CO2 emissions.

Being the most globalized of all businesses, maritime transport should consider adopting a global regime that helps further internalize its environmental externalities – to ensure prosperity for all, including future generations.

Note: This blog post benefits from half a century of data and analysis of UNCTAD colleagues, reported in UNCTAD’s Review of Maritime Transport RMT since 1968. See The 50th anniversary issue of the RMT will be launched at the GMF on 4 October in Hong Kong.

The views expressed in this Insight are those of the author alone and not necessarily those of the Global Maritime Forum. Excerpts may be published with reference to the Global Maritime Forum.

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