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18 November 2020
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 was, put simply, pollution emanating from rivers. According to the authorities, the pollution was caused by effluents discharged from a nearby factory. Swift action was taken to initiate prosecutions against the relevant persons involved in the pollution.(1) Despite such swift action, another major unscheduled water supply cut resulting again from pollution occurred less than two months after the earlier two water supply cuts.(2)
In hindsight, enforcement actions against the alleged perpetrators were taken in the blink of an eye to allay the frustration and anger of the people directly affected by their unscrupulous behaviour. But what about the silent and invisible polluters that have slowly but surely been affecting the air quality?
It should not come as a surprise that, like cars and other types of road transport, aeroplanes emit carbon dioxide and other pollutants which contribute to global warming. Pre-COVID-19 pandemic, it was predicted that the number of air passengers will double in the next 20 years, largely due to the growth of emerging markets in Asia.(3) Therefore, this growth could increase carbon emissions to at least 1.7 billion tonnes, largely contributed to by long-haul flights.(4)
Having realised the potential severity of the situation, in 2009 the International Air Transport Association (IATA) presented 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 with 2005. With this, the aviation industry became the first industry to pledge its commitment to a greener environment.(5)
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 tonnes of fuel which resulted in 506 metric tonnes of carbon dioxide emissions.(6) While this may point to a decrease in carbon dioxide emissions as compared with 2008 (when the carbon footprint was 670 million tonnes),(7) 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 whether the aviation industry is on track to realise the IATA's objective.
The Air Transport Action Group's September 2020 Waypoint 2050 report, which took into consideration the current COVID-19 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 aviation fuel is now "remarkably efficient" in relation to technological and operation efficiency as compared with the 1950s.(8)
The report 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 industry's slow recovery from the pandemic.(9) This may suggest that the aviation industry could fall behind in realising its objective.
Moving forward, the report sets out efforts to foster a clean energy transition push across governments, including the 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.(10)
In a Malaysian context, legislation affecting the civil aviation industry provides no environmental protection, especially with regard to carbon emissions reduction. Airline companies and related stakeholders have no obligation to reduce carbon emissions or take a more sustainable approach to aviation operations. Despite this, the ICAO reported that Malaysia had made collaborative efforts relating to environmental protection and presented state action plans to reduce Malaysia's carbon emissions to the ICAO.(11)
Further, the Malaysian Aviation Commission, the economic regulator of the Malaysian civil aviation industry, 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 and pollution control, environmental protection and conservation and sustainable consumption and production.(12)
It was also reported that by 2017(13) the Malaysian government voluntarily signed up to the Carbon Offsetting and Reduction Scheme for International Aviation (CORSIA) arrangement with the ICAO. Therefore, by 2021 or 2022, all airlines that operate international flights will have to undertake efforts to reduce carbon emissions.(14) Again, leaving aside setbacks in the implementation of CORSIA,(15) this remains to be seen.
The minister of transport has yet to agree to be presented with the economic master plan.(16) Therefore, the problem lies not with the deficiency in planning and policing but rather in the implementation and enforcement of such plans.
Late in 2019, Airbus Southeast Asia and Air Asia with the collaboration of Aerospace Malaysia Innovation Centre (AMIC) and relevant industry players were in the midst of discussion to initiate the adoption of sustainable aviation fuel. The AMIC aims to take advantage of Malaysia's abundance of biomass availability in its search of suitable feedstock for potential applications in aerospace (eg, bio-aviation fuel production and bio-composite material manufacturing), while also observing the strict sustainability factors.(17)
Biomass sources that are proposed to be used include palm oil, paddy and rubberwood.(18) This initiative was also part of Airbus's $120 million (approximately RM505 million) planned investments to further develop Malaysia's aviation and aerospace industry.(19) This spells good news for the aviation industry but, on a cautious note, this has yet to see its proper implementation.(20)
The 2015 book Sustainability of bio-jet fuel in Malaysia aims to realise the target date envisioned by the IATA, which is to halve the carbon emissions by 2050 worldwide. The book further states that government policies and market incentives have been implemented to support the use of green technology in the industry. However, the book notes that there can be more intervention relating to biomass commercialisation.(21)
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.(22)
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 the 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 COVID-19 pandemic.
There are 30 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, "[d]iseased nature oftentimes breaks forth in strange eruptions". Given the current situation, it can be agreed that such situations are not what is envisioned for the Malaysian aviation industry's future.
For further information on this topic please contact Trevor Jason Mark Padasian or Sandhya Saravanan at SKRINE by telephone (+603 2081 3999) or email (email@example.com or firstname.lastname@example.org). The SKRINE website can be accessed at www.skrine.com.
(1) See here.
(2) See here.
(3) See here.
(4) See here.
(5) See here.
(6) See here.
(8) See here.
(11) See here.
(12) See here.
(13) See here.
(14) See here.
(15) See here.
(16) See here.
(17) See here.
(18) See here.
(19) See here.
(21) See here.
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