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Red Sea Crisis Could Lead to a Fundamental Restructuring of Global Trade Patterns

Recent developments in the Red Sea, including a deadly Houthi missile strike that killed three crew members aboard the Barbados-flagged civilian cargo ship True Confidence and the sinking of the bulk carrier Rubymar, escalate the threat to shipping in the region to a new level.

While the crisis began in December 2023 with the announcement of just two shipping companies temporarily suspending their vessel movements in the region, as of now all of the world's largest shipping firms are avoiding the Red Sea. However, this 1,900-kilometer-long body of water serves as a critical global trade corridor, connecting the Indian Ocean with the Mediterranean Sea, Europe, the Middle East, and Africa, and handling around 12% of global trade volume. This includes over a billion tons of oil, grains, fertilizers, other commodities, as well as manufactured goods annually.

To bypass the Suez Canal, shipping companies have resorted to the longer and costlier route around the Cape of Good Hope, between Europe and Asia. This shift has led to a staggering 90 percent reduction in the region's traffic by January 2024 compared to the beginning of 2023, according to the Financial Times, citing data from the shipping services firm Clarksons.

Moreover, the spot rate for shipping a 40-foot container from China to Northern Europe has surged by 283% since the start of December, per Freightos, a freight trading platform. This spike in shipping costs presents additional challenges for the global shipping industry, already reeling from the post-COVID-19 pandemic boom, and signals a "difficult period" ahead, as warned by Møller-Maersk in early February. The company paused its share buyback program and reduced dividends, leading to a sharp decline in its stock value.

The rerouting of ships also has significant environmental repercussions. Vessels avoiding the Red Sea have increased their emissions by 70%, as operators speed up to compensate for the longer journey, which now extends to two weeks. This contradicts the recent trend of "slow steaming" to save fuel and reduce carbon emissions. If the situation persists, it could necessitate exploring alternative long-distance maritime trade routes.

Among these alternatives, the Northern Sea Route (NSR), controlled by Russia, offers reduced emission costs due to shorter distances. With the maritime industry joining the EU Emissions Trading Scheme (ETS) from 2024 and large freight companies receiving huge carbon bills, the savings on the EU ETS from reducing emissions could be in addition to the economic benefits for shippers. However, its use remains seasonal, primarily in summer, due to thick ice coverage in the Arctic seas for most of the year. The use of nuclear icebreakers, which don't rely on hydrocarbon fuel and have a minimal carbon footprint, mitigates this limitation.

According to Russia’s Rosatom, the operator of the Northern Sea Route, navigation in the western part of the Northern Sea Route is already year-round. Trade volumes along this route increased by 755% from 2014 to 2022, with Russia aiming to quadruple these volumes further.

The Northwest Passage presents more challenges due to heavier ice conditions and very low shipping traffic. Legal disputes between the US and Canada over its status complicate navigation further. The Transpolar Sea Route, while potentially reducing travel times, faces hurdles such as high insurance costs and the need for specialized expertise and vessels, making time savings an unattainable goal given the undeveloped infrastructure and poor quality of terrain maps.

Interestingly, there has been a resurgence in shipments through the Panama Canal due to reduced transit of commodities through the Red Sea. However, this revival is unlikely to significantly alter the canal's overall cargo movement, as drought-induced shallowing has led to restrictions on the number of vessels that can pass through it.

This article does not necessarily reflect the opinions of the editors or management of EconoTimes

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