World Seaborne Trade

It is difficult to quantify the value of volume of world seaborne trade in monetary terms, as figures for trade estimates are traditionally in terms of tonnes or tonne-miles, and are therefore not comparable with monetary-based statistics for the value of the world economy.

However, the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD) estimates that the operation of merchant ships contributes about US$380 billion in freight rates within the global economy, equivalent to about 5% of total world trade.

Shipping trade estimates are often calculated in tonne-miles, as a way of measuring the volume of trade (or "transportation work ", as it is sometimes referred).

Throughout the last century the shipping industry has seen a general trend of increases in total trade volume. Increasing industrialisation and the liberalisation of national economies have fuelled free trade and a growing demand for consumer products. Advances in technology have also made shipping an increasingly efficient and swift method of transportation. Over the last four decades total seaborne trade estimates have quadrupled, from just over 8 thousand billion tonne-miles in 1968 to over 32 thousand billion tonne-miles in 2008.

As with all industrial sectors, however, shipping can be susceptible to economic downturns. Indeed, following several years of incredibly buoyant shipping markets, for many trades the best in living memory, much of the international shipping industry has fallen prey to the worldwide economic downturn. Shipping is inherently the servant of the economy, so the contraction in trade, following the beginning of the ‘credit crunch’ in late 2008, has translated into a dramatic and abrupt reduction in demand for shipping.

Notwithstanding the current situation, the longer term outlook for the industry remains very good. The world’s population continues to expand, and emerging economies will continue to increase their requirements for the goods and raw materials that shipping transports so safely and efficiently. As the below graph illustrates, the volume of world trade carried by sea has again begun to steadily increase in recent years. In the longer term, the fact that shipping is the most fuel efficient and carbon friendly form of commercial transport should work in favour of an even greater proportion of world trade being carried by sea.



  • International Chamber of Shipping
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