Thursday, May 26, 2011

Global Shipping Capacity


I discovered this morning that the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD) puts out some interesting statistics, including keeping track of the size of the global shipping fleet.  This is an interesting indicator of globalization.  The above graph shows those statistics since 1980, broken out by type of ship.  The units on the y-axis are billions of deadweight tons, with deadweight being the maximum weight the ship can safely carry, exclusive of the weight of the ship itself.

The other day, several commenters wondered to what extent peak oil would limit globalization (the idea being that since shipping requires oil, less oil would mean less shipping).  You can see above that, so far, things don't seem to be working that way.  Global shipping capacity sharply increased after about 2005, just as global oil production was more-or-less plateauing:


(data from EIA, graph not zero-scaled).  Obviously, oil is being conserved somewhere, since production growth has slowed down.  However, it's not being conserved by shipping less.  Instead, the rapid growth of China and other developing markets is driving a pronounced expansion in shipping capacity, even in the face of the 2005-2008 oil shock and the great recession.

There has also been a strain of thought in the peak oil community that oil trade would decline much more rapidly than global oil production post peak (exemplified in extreme form by Jeff Brown's export land model).  Note the red band in the first graph above, which represents the capacity of oil tankers.  If this is any guide, the onset of a plateau in oil production has been associated with increases in oil trade, not decreases.

Update: see this post for more clarification on these issues.

8 comments:

cimon9999 said...

Interesting article, thanks for the UNCTAD link.

One thing to note is that figure one is shipping capacity, not tonne miles. A graph of that is here (http://www.marisec.org/shippingfacts/worldtrade/volume-world-trade-sea.php).

By this estimate trade in crude oil and oil products has been essentially flat since 1998 at about 10,000 G t-miles/yr. Given the data from your first graph, the utilization of ships must have decreased substantially. This ties with what I read regarding the blocking of the Suez canal during Egypt's revolution - there is plenty of spare capacity to travel around Africa if needs be.

Based on BP data, with 2 G t of oil exported in 2009, the average oil barrel travelled 5,000 seaborne miles, down from about 6,000 seaborne miles in 1998. Some of this is probably down to e.g. China being closer to ME than America and increased pipeline transport (Canada to America).

If net exports do indeed decrease, then it could be an important source of demand destruction (marine bunkers consume about 4.5 mb/d, with oil currently 1/3 of that).

Isak said...

Could it be that when oil decline in mature areas like US and Europe trade goes up at first even though production reaches a plateau. New oilfields in far away places and demand destruction in economically weaker countries means more shipments of oil.

Greg T. Jeffers said...

Perhaps the price incentive to sell oil dearly on the international markets is overcoming the desire to placate the producers domestic masses...

Gary said...

For developing markets, oil is still a bargain compared to no-oil. Hence, expansion of shipping to developing nations could indeed be the biggest factor in the increase. Meanwhile, the West has suffered a recession that has reduced demand - but we have yet to have what I would consider a real "price demand destruction" moment for oil.

Michael Tobis said...

Ocean shipping is very low energy per ton-mile. The concern is misplaced. Look at air fright first.

Hal said...

I wonder how much of the last 2 years of data might be momentum. By that I mean ships that had been ordered prior to 2008 that were in the construction pipeline. I don't know anything about commercial ships, but the military ones they build in these parts take at least a couple of years in the construction.

bmerson said...

It seems to me that, given their core importance to the way economies currently run, and given that most of the world's decision makers want those economies to keep running the same way, it is likely that food, energy production, and transportation would be maintained at the expense of other sectors.

You might have to try and figure out whether other sectors are being shorted in order to maintain those "high-priority" sectors. I'm not sure what data set(s) one would use to try to support that idea though.

ocschwar said...

When oil prices cause ships to sail at slower speeds, it takes more shipping capacity on the water to deliver the same number of tonnes from A to B per annum. The continuing increase in shipping capacity should be seen in that light.