UNCTAD warns of grim maritime trade outlook due to COVID-19

Global maritime trade will plunge in 2020 due to the unprecedented disruption caused by COVID-19, the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD) said in a new report.

The report, entitled the Review of Maritime Transport 2020, warns that new waves of the pandemic that further disrupt supply chains and economies might cause a steeper decline and the short-term outlook for maritime trade is grim.

UNCTAD projects the volume of international maritime trade to fall by 4.1 per cent in 2020.

Illustration. Image Courtesy: Kees Torn on Flickr under CC BY-SA 2.0 license

As explained, the coronavirus has underscored the global interdependency of nations and set in motion new trends that will reshape the maritime transport landscape.

It has also brought to the fore the importance of maritime transport as an essential sector for the continued delivery of critical supplies and global trade in time of crisis, during the recovery stage and when resuming normality.

However, the sector is facing concerns resulting not only from the pandemic but also longer-term considerations, ranging from shifts in supply-chain design and globalization patterns to changes in consumption and spending habits, a growing focus on risk assessment and resilience-building, as well as a heightened global sustainability and low-carbon agenda.

The sector is also dealing with the knock-on effects of growing trade protectionism and inward-looking policies.

UNCTAD expects maritime trade growth to return to positive territory and expand by 4.8% in 2021, assuming world economic output recovers. However, predicting the pandemic’s longer-term impact as well as the timing and scale of the industry’s recovery is fraught with uncertainty.

The UN body explained that the sector will need to brace itself for change, adapt and ensure it well prepared to enter the post-COVID-19 pandemic world.

“The global shipping industry will be at the forefront of efforts towards a sustainable recovery, as a vital enabler of the smooth functioning of international supply chains,” Mukhisa Kituyi, UNCTAD Secretary-General, commented.

“The industry must be a key stakeholder helping adapt ‘just-in-time efficiency’ logistics to ‘just-in-case’ preparedness.”

Specifically, there are six priority areas for policy action to be taken in response to the COVID-19 pandemic and the persistent challenges facing the maritime transport and trade of developing countries.

They include the following:

  1. Support trade so it can effectively sustain growth and development.
  2. Help reshape globalization for sustainability and resilience.
  3. Promote greater technology uptake and digitalization.
  4. Harness data for monitoring and policy responses.
  5. Enable agile and resilient maritime transport systems.
  6. Maintain the momentum on sustainability, climate change adaptation and resilience-building.

“The success of the above-mentioned policy measures will depend on effective international collaboration to ensure coordinated policy responses,” UNCTAD said.

“Coordinated efforts are also necessary for the standardization of data, tracking of port performance and development of protection mechanisms against cybercrime.”