The shipping industry moves about 11 billion tons of stuff around the world each year. That’s about, 300 times more than what you move by aircraft, for instance, and those are the two main international freight transportation modes for getting across an ocean at least. And to move 11 billion tons of cargo, ships are emitting about a billion tons of carbon dioxide.
And if it were a country, the shipping sector would rank sixth, more than Germany. And it’s about on par with how much international aviation emits. They both emit about a billion tons of carbon dioxide. But most of the emissions from international aviation are associated with moving people back and forth and not so much on the cargo side.
Rail doesn’t even really enter into the equation in terms of the overall contribution to goods movement and transportation emissions on the global scale.
About 80% of total freight transportation by mass is carried by ship. A lot of people say 90%, it’s actually more like 80%. And that’s about 70% by value.
Containers ships, bulk carriers and oil tankers, those three ships account for over half of the emissions from the sector. There’s about 50,000-60,000 commercial ships that are big enough to really count. In total around the world, there’s hundreds of thousands of ships, but you have to sort of draw the line somewhere. So of those 50 to 60,000 ships, 5,000 are container ships. So about 10% of the fleet, and they’re responsible for about 25% of carbon dioxide emissions from the sector. And then we have bulk carriers. There’s about 10,000 of those and they are responsible for about a fifth of emissions and then oil tankers for about a six of emissions.
So the container ships are moving manufactured goods back and forth. You know, if you look around your office and look at all this stuff you have, quite a bit of it, maybe all of it, was moved at some point on a ship. But the other portion of the shipping industry that maybe doesn’t get as much attention is just how much fossil fuels are transported by ships. So we have bulk carriers and oil tankers, and those two are transporting coal and crude oil and petroleum products, diesel fuel. And about 40% of that 11 billion tons of cargo that’s moved is fossil fuels a little over three billion tons in the form of oil and oil products and then a little more than one in coal. So there’s actually quite a bit of the shipping industry that is dedicated just to moving fossil fuels from where they’re produced and refined to the areas in which they’re being used.
Shipping Facts, Shipping and world trade: driving prosperity. International Chamber of Shipping. https://www.ics-shipping.org/shipping-fact/shipping-and-world-trade-driving-prosperity/
European Commission. Reducing emissions from the shipping sector. https://ec.europa.eu/clima/eu-action/transport-emissions/reducing-emissions-shipping-sector_en
Ritchie, H. 2020. Climate change and flying: what share of global CO2 emissions come from aviation? https://ourworldindata.org/co2-emissions-from-aviation
Subramanian, S. 2022. Forty percent of all shipping cargo consists of fossil fuels. Quartz. https://qz.com/2113243/forty-percent-of-all-shipping-cargo-consists-of-fossil-fuels/