Much ado about nothing? Climate change is real and the aviation industry has to step up its efforts


Fury flared among Malaysians as two unscheduled water supply cuts occurred within a month which affected more than 300,000 people. The common denominator for both incidents is, put simply, pollution emanating from rivers. According to authorities, the cause for the pollution is the effluents discharged from a nearby factory. Swift actions were taken to initiate prosecutions against the relevant persons involved in the pollution.1
In hindsight, enforcement actions against the alleged perpetrators were taken in a blink of an eye to allay the frustration and anger of the people directly affected by their unscrupulous behaviour. What about the silent and invisible polluters that have slowly but surely been affecting the air quality?
The aviation industry and its environmental impact
It should not come as a surprise that, similar to cars and other road transportations, aeroplanes emit carbon dioxide and other pollutants which contribute to global warming. Pre-pandemic, it is predicted that the number of air passengers will double within the next 20 years and this is largely due to the growth of emerging markets in Asia.2 This growth could, therefore, increase the carbon emissions to at least 1.7 billion tonnes, largely contributed to by long-haul flights.3
Having realised the potential severity of the situation, the International Air Transport Association (IATA) presented in 2009, the industry position to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change in Copenhagen which included a net reduction in carbon emissions of 50% by 2050 compared to 2005. With this, the aviation industry became the first industry to pledge its commitment to a greener environment.4
Ten years later, according to the 2019 Environmental report by the International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO), in 2015, the international aviation consumed approximately 160 metric tonne of fuel which resulted in 506 metric tonne of carbon dioxide emissions.5 While this may point to a decrease in carbon dioxide emissions as compared to 2008 (carbon footprint was 670 million tonnes)6, considering the period of time that has lapsed, a mere difference of approximately 164 metric tonnes may not seem like a win. At this juncture, the million-dollar question to be asked: “Is the aviation industry on track to realising IATA’s objective?”
Measures for greener practices, or the lack thereof
The report “Waypoint 2050” by Air Transport Action Group, published this September and taking into account the current pandemic, seemed evasive in its conclusion on whether the aviation industry has been on track in its realisation of the objective but does point out a few improvements made over the years, including that the aviation fuel is now ‘remarkably efficient’ in relation to technological and operation efficiency as compared to in the 1950s.7
It further points out that the post-Covid-19 revision of long-term growth suggests that the central traffic forecast used for Waypoint 2050 is around 16% lower in 2050 than it was in a pre-Covid-19 world, owing largely to the slow recovery of the industry from the pandemic.8 This may suggest that the aviation industry may fall behind in realising its objective.
Moving forward, the report has set out efforts to foster a clean energy transition push across governments, including deployment of sustainable aviation fuel (SAF) which can include attracting capital to expand SAF capacity through loan guarantee programmes, direct research and development activities for local SAF production pathways and new energy industries.9
In the Malaysian context, legislation affecting the civil aviation industry does not provide for environmental protection especially carbon emissions reduction. There are no obligations on the part of airline companies or related stakeholders to reduce carbon emissions nor take a more sustainable approach to aviation operations. Despite this, ICAO has reported that Malaysia had made collaborative efforts in relation to environmental protection as well as presentation of State Action Plans to reduce carbon emissions by Malaysia to the ICAO.10
Further, the Malaysian Aviation Commission (MAVCOM), the economic regulator of the Malaysian civil aviation industry, had completed its proposal for a long-term strategic direction for the sector in its Economic Master Plan to the Ministry of Transport. The proposals include environmental aspects of the aviation industry which include fuel consumption and emission/pollution control, environmental protection and conservation as well as sustainable consumption and production.11
It was also reported that the Malaysian government, by 2017,12 has voluntarily signed up to the Carbon Offsetting and Reduction Scheme for International Aviation (CORSIA) arrangement with ICAO. Therefore, by 2021/2022, all airlines that operate international flights will have to undertake efforts to reduce carbon emissions.13 Again, leaving aside setbacks in the implementation of CORSIA14, this remains to be seen.
To-date, the Minister of Transport has yet to agree to be presented with the Economic Master Plan.15 It can be observed that the problem lies not with the deficiency in planning and policing but in the implementation and enforcement of such plans.
Malaysia’s ambitious move towards sustainable aviation fuel
Late last year, Airbus Southeast Asia and Air Asia with the collaboration of Aerospace Malaysia Innovation Centre (AMIC) as well as relevant industry players were in the midst of discussion to initiate the adoption of sustainable aviation fuel. AMIC aims to take advantage of Malaysia’s abundance of biomass availability in its search of suitable feedstock for potential applications in aerospace such as bio-aviation fuel production and bio-composite material manufacturing, while also observing the strict sustainability factors.16
Biomass sources that are proposed to be used include palm oil, paddy, rubberwood, just to name a few.17 This initiative was also part of Airbus’ US$120 million (approximately RM505 million) planned investments to further develop Malaysia’s aviation and aerospace industry.18 This spells good news for the aviation industry but, on a cautious note, this has yet to see its proper implementation.19
The book “Sustainability of bio-jet fuel in Malaysia” which was published in 2015, aims to realise the target date envisioned by IATA which is to halve the carbon emissions by 2050 worldwide. It further states that government policies and market incentives have been implemented to support the use of green technology in the industry. However, it reports that there can be more intervention in relation to biomass commercialisation.20
At this juncture, there is scope for aviation regulators to advocate and encourage relevant stakeholders to adopt a similar practice, in line with their powers and functions.21
Tackling one problem at a time
With airline companies rapidly depleting cash reserves and any form of subsidies to ensure survival in the current climate, the unsurprising reality is that efforts to go green have taken a step back. Arguably, this does not sound unfair especially since efforts for implementation of greener practices in the aviation industry pivot on the growth and prosperity of airline companies. It is a priority for airline companies to survive the pandemic.
Thirty years to go, and time flies fast. The aviation industry was the first to pledge its commitment for greener practices and it should not be the last to realise its objectives. Therefore, what the aviation industry must not condone is the lackadaisical approach to the growing problems of climate change. The need to reconcile the demand for air transport and the need to mitigate its environmental impact remain crucial. The pandemic has in a way allowed relevant industry players to pause and ponder on long-term strategies, including but not limited to the sustainability of both airline companies and, importantly, environmental protection.
It does not need to get worse before the authorities start scurrying to enforce stricter greener measures and pointing fingers at one another. Quoting Shakespeare, “Diseased nature oftentimes breaks forth in strange eruptions”. Given the current situation, we can all agree that such situations are not what we envision for Malaysian aviation industry’s future.
Article by Trevor Jason Mark Padasian (Partner) and Sandhya Saravanan (Associate) of the Aviation Practice of Skrine.

6 Ibid.
8 Ibid.
9 Ibid.
19 Ibid.
21 See section 18 of the Malaysian Aviation Commission Act 2015.