Could Shipping Journeys Become Longer Due To Geopolitics?

23rd January 2024

Global shipping offers several pinch points or potential bottlenecks spread across the world's seas and oceans. There is potential for geopolitics to interrupt these recognised routes making journeys longer in both time and nautical distance. This in turn would have a major impact on not just cost, but also marine and shipping emissions.

Could Shipping Journeys Become Longer Due To Geopolitics?

As tankers, car-carriers, cruise ships and various merchant vessels navigate the Malacca Strait, the presence of unlit fishing boats weaving through shipping lanes at night makes it one of the world's most challenging sea areas to transit, even in times of peace. In the event of a major war in Asia, these challenges could escalate significantly, with hundreds of vessels hastily leaving international waters in the middle of the Strait, seeking potential safety within the national territorial waters of nearby neutral nations.

The Strait, positioned between Thailand, Malaysia, Indonesia, and Singapore, serves as the entry point from the Indian Ocean into the South China Sea, acting as a crucial maritime choke point for the transportation of goods manufactured in Asia to the rest of the world. It also plays a vital role in carrying a substantial portion of Asia's oil and gas, including three-quarters of China's supply.

Currently, the immediate threat to shipping in the region is relatively limited, though there are some areas of concern where shipping companies are taking action such especially around the Gulf of Aden, where Houthi militants have targeted multiple vessels since the start of the conflict across Gaza and Israel which is ongoing. In the Gulf of Aden, these attacks, along with attempted and successful hijackings by small boats, represent the most significant disruption to maritime trade since the peak of the Somali piracy crisis in 2011.

We also have the Black Sea conflict with Ukraine and Russia which is accessed via the Bosporus Strait. The potential for further conflict or geopolitical events globally is open to change very quickly with global powers seeking influence, territory and resources. As the word becomes smaller shipping distances could actually get longer. This would impact shipping and marine emissions significantly. Virtually all ships use liquid fossil fuels as the main energy source. Fuel grades range from distillate to residual. Distillate 'gas oil' contains little sulphur and is of low viscosity so needs no heating for combustion. Residual 'heavy fuel oil' is black in appearance, contains on average 2.7% sulphur and needs heating to over 120°C for combustion.

Recognised shipping routes include the following listed below:

  • Strait of Hormuz between Oman and Iran at the entrance to the Persian Gulf
  • Bab-el-Mandeb passage from the Arabian Sea to the Red Sea (Yemen and Socotra)
  • Strait of Malacca and the Singapore Strait between Malaysia and Sumatra (Indonesia)
  • Panama Canal and the Panama Pipeline connecting the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans
  • Suez Canal and the Sumed Pipeline connecting the Red Sea and Mediterranean Sea (Egypt)
  • Strait of Gibraltar along the Atlantic Ocean entering the Mediterranean Sea (Spain, Gibraltar and Morocco)
  • Strait of Dover or English Channel separating the Atlantic Ocean and the North Sea (England and France)
  • Strait of Magellan & Drake Passage (Chile)
  • Beagle Channel (Chile and Argentina)
  • The Cape of Good Hope (South Africa)
  • Bering Strait (United States of America and Russia)
  • Bosporus Strait linking the Black Sea (and oil coming from the Caspian Sea region) to the Mediterranean Sea (Turkey)
  • Dardanelles Strait connecting the Sea of Marmara with the Aegean Sea (Turkey)
  • Strait of Tartary along Sea of Japan and Sea of Okhotsk (Russia)

The impact of some of these choke points becoming closed would have a major impact on the IMO GHG strategy which states; The IMO remains committed to reducing GHG emissions from international shipping and, as a matter of urgency, aims to phase them out as soon as possible, while promoting, in the context of this Levels of ambition directing the 2023 IMO GHG Strategy are as follows:

  • Carbon intensity of the ship to decline through further improvement of the energy efficiency for new ships - to review with the aim of strengthening the energy efficiency design requirements for ships.
  • Carbon intensity of international shipping to decline - To reduce CO2 emissions per transport work, as an average across international shipping, by at least 40% by 2030, compared to 2008.
  • Uptake of zero or near-zero GHG emission technologies, fuels and/or energy sources to increase - Uptake of zero or near-zero GHG emission technologies, fuels and/or energy sources to represent at least 5%, striving for 10%, of the energy used by international shipping by 2030.
  • GHG emissions from international shipping to reach net zero - To peak GHG emissions from international shipping as soon as possible and to reach net-zero GHG emissions by or around, i.e. close to 2050, taking into account different national circumstances, whilst pursuing efforts towards phasing them out as called for in the Vision consistent with the long-term temperature goal set out in Article 2 of the Paris Agreement.

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