UNCTAD Maritime Report 2021, international maritime trade and port traffic

The United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD) has just published its Review of Maritime Transport 2021, looking at the impact of events in the past two years on maritime transport in general and on the challenges faced by seafarers in particular.

IMN is covering each of the (six) individual chapters separately.

Today, Chapter 1: International maritime trade and port traffic.

In 2020, international maritime trade and global supply chains were hit by the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic. However, maritime transport overall managed to navigate through the crisis. For some parts of the supply chain the impact was not as dramatic as initially feared, UNCTAD said.

Port and landside operations, however, struggled to adjust, and the world’s seafarers faced a precarious situation as they became caught up in an unprecedented global crew-change crisis.

In 2020 global economic output fell by 3.5% and merchandise trade by 5.4%, while international maritime shipments fell by 3.8 per cent, falling to 10.65bn tons. UNCTAD expected world maritime trade to recover by 4.3% in 2021 and growth was projected to continue over the years 2022-to-2026, although at rates that would be moderated by an easing in world economic output.

Although the short-term outlook was positive, the medium-term and longer-term prospects remained uncertain, UNCTAD said, noting that “the upturn will be directed by the future path of the pandemic and the associated lockdowns and restrictions”.

In 2021 much of the global economic revival was being driven by government spending in major economies. This meant that the patterns and geography of the recovery would be shaped by the ways in which their governments taper off these support measures. UNCTAD added the caveat that progress could still be derailed by further outbreaks of the pandemic, by slow vaccine deployment and in many economies by the limited scope for policy support.

Starting in late 2020 there was a swift rebound in containerized trade, but this hit supply-side constraints. This increased costs, impacted service reliability and undermined the operation of value chains. UNCTAD predicted that “as global demand patterns normalize, these problems are likely to dissipate, but the longer- term outlook will continue to be shaped by wide-ranging and longer-term structural factors, including patterns of globalization, changes in consumption habits, digitalization and the growth of ecommerce, as well as by the global energy transition and the imperative of environmental sustainability”.

The organization said that the impact of Covid-19 had highlighted the need for better risk management, greater preparedness and more resilience. The disruption was amplified by other events that created transport bottlenecks, including flooding and te short-term blockage of the Suez Canal, which UNCTAD said “exposed risks and vulnerabilities in supply chains”.

It concluded that “building future resilience will entail reforming business models and global supply chains, and reorganizing maritime transport networks”.

International maritime trade, 1970–2020 (millions of tons loaded)

Year Tanker trader Main bulk Other dry cargo Total (all cargoes)
1970 1,440 448 717 2,605
1980 1,871 608 1,225 3,704
1990 1,755 988 1,265 4,008
2000 2,163 1,186 2,635 5,984
2005 2,422 1,579 3,108 7,109
2006 2,698 1,676 3,328 7,702
2007 2,747 1,811 3,478 8,036
2008 2,742 1,911 3,578 8,231
2009 2,641 1,998 3,218 7,857
2010 2,752 2,232 3,423 8,408
2011 2,785 2,364 3,626 8,775
2012 2,840 2,564 3,791 9,195
2013 2,828 2,734 3,951 9,513
2014 2,825 2,964 4,054 9,842
2015 2,932 2,930 4,161 10,023
2016 3,058 3,009 4,228 10,295
2017 3,146 3,151 4,419 10,716
2018 3,201 3,215 4,603 11,019
2019 3,163 3,218 4,690 11,071
2020 2,918 3,181 4,549 10,648

Compiled by the UNCTAD secretariat based on data supplied by reporting countries and as published on the relevant government and port industry websites, and by specialist sources.

Dry cargo data for 2006 onwards has been revised and updated to reflect improved reporting, including more recent figures and a better breakdown by cargo type.

Since 2006, the breakdown of dry cargo into “Main bulk” and “Other dry cargo” is based on various issues of the Shipping Review and Outlook and Seaborne Trade Monitor, produced by Clarksons Research.

Total maritime trade figures for 2020 are estimated based on preliminary data or on the last year for which data were available.

Tanker trade includes crude oil, refined petroleum products, gas, and chemicals.

Main bulk includes iron ore, grain, coal, bauxite/alumina, and phosphate. Starting in 2006, “Main bulk” includes iron ore, grain, and coal only. Data relating to bauxite/alumina and phosphate are included under “Other dry cargo”.

Includes minor bulk commodities, containerized trade, and residual general cargo.