Extensive measurements of the emission of light absorbing carbon aerosol (LAC) from commercial shipping are presented. Vessel emissions were sampled using a photoacoustic spectrometer in the Gulf of Mexico region. The highest emitters (per unit fuel burnt) are tug boats, thus making significant contributions to local air quality in ports. Emission of LAC from cargo and non cargo vessels in this study appears to be independent of engine load. Shipping fuel consumption data (2001) was used to calculate a global LAC contribution of 133(±27) Ggyr−1, or ∼1.7% of global LAC. This small fraction could have disproportionate effects on both air quality near port areas and climate in the Arctic if direct emissions of LAC occur in that region due to opening Arctic sea routes. The global contribution of this LAC burden was investigated using the MOZART model. Increases of 20–50 ng m−3 LAC (relative increases up to 40%) due to shipping occur in the tropical Atlantic, Indonesia, central America and the southern regions of South America and Africa.