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Visualizing Global Shipping Container Traffic

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Shipping container traffic

shipping containers china u.s.

Visualizing Global Shipping Container Traffic

Globalization owes a lot to the humble shipping container.

In the distant past, loading a ship was a complicated affair involving pallets, crates, and winches. This process was labor-intensive and expensive, meaning most goods were simply not worth shipping overseas.

In the 1970s, the standardized shipping container solved this problem on a wide scale and turned the world economy on its head. This standardization drove the cost of shipping down as the efficiency of ports skyrocketed. Modern ports can now move upwards of 70 containers per crane per hour.

It doesn’t matter anymore where you produce something now, because transport costs aren’t important.

– Rainer Horn, Hapag-Lloyd

Made in China

With the barrier of shipping costs effectively removed, production began to migrate to countries with cheaper production costs.

China is at the center of this new paradigm: nearly one-third of all global containers move through Chinese ports, and seven of the top 10 ports in the world are all located in China.

Countries Moving the Most Units

Here are the 50 countries with the most 20-foot containers passing through their ports:

RankCountry20-Foot Container Count (2017)
1China (inc. H.K.)234,489,920
2United States51,425,464
3Singapore33,600,000
4South Korea27,427,000
5Malaysia24,719,000
6Japan21,904,444
7U.A.E.21,280,900
8Germany19,447,600
9Spain17,065,000
10Netherlands13,951,000
11Indonesia13,859,500
12India13,259,000
13Vietnam12,284,395
14Belgium11,857,009
15Thailand10,732,000
16Italy10,698,030
17United Kingdom10,530,328
18Brazil10,049,282
19Turkey9,927,385
20Saudi Arabia8,404,000
21Philippines8,196,961
22Australia7,693,643
23Egypt7,430,000
24Panama6,900,000
25France6,714,551
26Mexico6,305,000
27Canada6,298,590
28Sri Lanka6,000,000
29Oman4,784,712
30South Africa4,634,900
31Morocco4,570,000
32Russia4,515,000
33Greece4,461,000
34Chile4,189,669
35Colombia3,444,503
36New Zealand3,227,100
37Portugal3,220,100
38Malta3,203,000
39Iran3,091,000
40Pakistan2,985,600
41Israel2,865,028
42Bangladesh2,587,000
43Poland2,459,900
44Peru2,368,989
45Ecuador1,944,135
46Finland1,920,800
47Argentina1,750,102
48Jamaica1,689,000
49Nigeria1,656,000
50Sweden1,593,450

Asian countries dominate shipping container traffic, taking up four of the top five spots. Singapore, with a population of just 5.4 million, moved nearly 34 million 20-foot containers in 2017. That’s more than Italy, France, Russia, Sweden, and the U.K. combined.

The United States is still the number two country in the world in terms of the number of containers handled. Two massive ports in Los Angeles control over a quarter of the North American market share, and the Port of New York & New Jersey is the largest on the Eastern Seaboard.

The Stack Keeps Growing

Except for a brief slip in 2009, the number of containers moving through ports has increased every year this millennium so far.

Global container shipping chart

In spite of the recent volley of tariff actions, there appears to be smooth sailing ahead for the growth of containerized shipping.

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China

COVID-19 Crash: How China’s Economy May Offer a Glimpse of the Future

China has seen a severe economic impact from COVID-19, and it may be a preview of what’s to come for countries in the early stages of the outbreak.

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COVID-19 economic impact

The Economic Impact of COVID-19

China, once the epicenter of the COVID-19 pandemic, appears to be turning a corner. As the number of reported local transmission cases hovers near zero, daily life is slowly returning to normal. However, economic data from the first two months of the year shows the damage done to the country’s finances.

Today’s visualization outlines the sharp losses China’s economy has experienced, and how this may foreshadow what’s to come for countries currently in the early stages of the outbreak.

A Historic Slump

The results are in: China’s business activity slowed considerably as COVID-19 spread.

Economic IndicatorYear-over-year Change (Jan-Feb 2020)
Investment in Fixed Assets*-24.5%
Retail Sales-20.5%
Value of Exports-15.9%
Industrial Production-13.5%
Services Production-13.0%

*Excluding rural household investment

As factories and shops reopen, China seems to be over the initial supply side shock caused by the lockdown. However, the country now faces a double-headed demand shock:

  • Domestic demand is slow to gain traction due to psychological scars, bankruptcies, and job losses. In a survey conducted by a Beijing financial firm, almost 65% of respondents plan to “restrain” their spending habits after the virus.
  • Overseas demand is suffering as more countries face outbreaks. Many stores are closing up shop and/or cancelling orders, leading to an oversupply of goods.

With a fast recovery seeming highly unlikely, many economists expect China’s GDP to shrink in the first quarter of 2020—the country’s first decline since 1976.

Danger on the Horizon

Are other countries destined to follow the same path? Based on preliminary economic data, it would appear so.

The U.S.
About half the U.S. population is on stay-at-home orders, severely restricting economic activity and forcing widespread layoffs. In the week ending March 21, total unemployment insurance claims rose to almost 3.3 million—their highest level in recorded history. For context, weekly claims reached a high of 665,000 during the global financial crisis.

“…The economy has just fallen over the cliff and is turning down into a recession.”

Chris Rupkey, Chief Economist at MUFG in New York

In addition, manufacturing activity in eastern Pennsylvania, southern New Jersey, and Delaware dropped to its lowest level since July 2012.

Globally
Other countries are also feeling the economic impact of COVID-19. For example, global online bookings for seated diners have declined by 100% year-over-year. In Canada, nearly one million people have applied for unemployment benefits.

Hard-hit countries such as Italy and Spain, which already suffer from high unemployment, are also expecting to see economic blows. However, it’s too soon to gauge the extent of the damage.

Light at the End of the Tunnel

Given the near-shutdown of many economies, the IMF is forecasting a global recession in 2020. Separately, the UN estimates COVID-19 could cause up to a $2 trillion shortfall in global income.

On the bright side, some analysts are forecasting a recovery as early as the third quarter of 2020. A variety of factors, such as government stimulus, consumer confidence, and the number of COVID-19 cases, will play into this timeline.

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The Emissions Impact of Coronavirus Lockdowns, As Shown by Satellites

While the COVID-19 pandemic has been all-consuming, these satellite images show its unintended environmental impacts on NO₂ emissions.

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The Emissions Impact of Coronavirus Lockdowns

There’s a high chance you’re reading this while practicing social distancing, or while your corner of the world is under some type of advised or enforced lockdown.

While these are necessary measures to contain the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic, such economic interruption is unprecedented in many ways—resulting in some surprising side effects.

The Evidence is in NO₂ Emissions

Nitrogen dioxide (NO₂) emissions, a major air pollutant, are closely linked to factory output and vehicles operating on the road.

As both industry and transport come to a halt during this pandemic, NO₂ emissions can be a good indicator of global economic activity—and the changes are visible from space.

These images from the Centre for Research on Energy and Clean Air (CREA), as well as satellite footage from NASA and the European Space Agency (ESA), show a drastic decline in NO₂ emissions over recent months, particularly across Italy and China.

NO₂ Emissions Across Italy

In Italy, the number of active COVID-19 cases has surpassed China (including the death toll). Amid emergency actions to lock down the entire nation, everything from schools and shops, to restaurants and even some churches, are closed.

Italy is also an industrial hub, with the sector accounting for nearly 24% of GDP. With many Italians urged to work from home if possible, visible economic activity has dropped considerably.

This 10-day moving average animation (from January 1st—March 11th, 2020) of nitrogen dioxide emissions across Europe clearly demonstrates how the drop in Italy’s economic activity has impacted the environment.


Source: European Space Agency (ESA)

That’s not all: a drop in boat traffic also means that Venice’s canals are clear for the time being, as small fish have begun inhabiting the waterways again. Experts are cautious to note that this does not necessarily mean the water quality is better.

NO₂ Emissions Across China

The emissions changes above China are possibly even more obvious to the eye. China is the world’s most important manufacturing hub and a significant contributor to greenhouse gases globally. But in the month following Lunar New Year (a week-long festival in early February), satellite imagery painted a different picture.

no2 emissions wuhan china
Source: NASA Earth Observatory

NO₂ emissions around the Hubei province, the original epicenter of the virus, steeply dropped as factories were forced to shutter their doors for the time being.

What’s more, there were measurable effects in the decline of other emission types from the drop in coal use during the same time, compared to years prior.

China Coal Use FInal

Back to the Status Quo?

In recent weeks, China has been able to flatten the curve of its total COVID-19 cases. As a result, the government is beginning to ease its restrictions—and it’s clear that social and economic activities are starting to pick back up in March.


Source: European Space Agency (ESA)

With the regular chain of events beginning to resume, it remains to be seen whether NO₂ emissions will rebound right back to their pre-pandemic levels.

This bounce-back effect—which can sometimes reverse any overall drop in emissions—is [called] “revenge pollution”. And in China, it has precedent.

Li Shuo, Senior climate policy advisor, Greenpeace East Asia

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