Vietnam is struggling to break one of the world’s biggest coal addictions

Vietnam is struggling to break one of the world’s biggest coal addictions


Despite Vietnam’s solar boom and ambitious climate targets, the fast-growing economy is struggling to phase out dirty energy — leaving one of the world’s largest coal-fired power programs largely intact.

During last year’s COP26 climate summit, the government boldly pledged to end construction of new coal-fired power plants and phase out the dirtiest of those already in operation, even if energy demands at the production plant skyrocket.

“But that’s actually not what Vietnam is doing at the national level,” Nandini Das, an energy researcher and policy analyst at Climate Analytics, told AFP.

Vietnam pledged to reach net-zero carbon emissions by 2050, but with coal and gas still making up a large part of its energy mix a year later, that commitment is shaky, she said.

The authoritarian communist state also jailed four green activists this year, including anti-coal campaigner Nguy Thi Khanh, alarming environmentalists who argue it will be even harder for Vietnam to ban dirty energy without them.

“With climate leaders in jail, I think there are serious doubts about the country’s ability to meet its goals,” said Michael Sutton, director of the Goldman Environmental Foundation.

He said “leaders like Khanh are instrumental in building public support” for radical change in Vietnam’s economy.

– solar boom –

After China and India, Vietnam has the world’s third-largest pipeline of new coal-fired power plant projects.

But at this week’s COP27, the G7 countries could announce billions of dollars in funding to help Vietnam move off fossil fuels, and the country could attract billions more in clean energy investments under the Just Energy Transition Partnership.

The rise of solar energy in the Southeast Asian nation has also been meteoric.

According to independent energy think tank Ember, the share of electricity generated from solar energy rose to 10 percent globally in 2021 from 2 percent the previous year.

Last year, the country ranked in the top 10 for global solar energy capacity.

In the Mekong Delta, one of the beneficiaries is farmer Doan Van Tien – whose community is poor, remote and has little access to the national electricity grid.

He depended on an expensive oil generator for most of his life until the emergence of 14 solar batteries funded by Green ID, the environmental non-profit group founded by activist Khanh.

“It changed my life a lot,” he told AFP, pointing to his lucrative avocado and tangerine crops.

“In the past we wanted to grow these fruit trees, but we couldn’t afford the water pump,” he said. Now he waters his plants for free.

Others have switched to solar thanks to generous feed-in tariffs, but their success has met a stumbling block: infrastructure limitations mean transmission lines can’t handle peaks in supply, forcing grid operators to cap feed-in power.

– change mentality –

In other steps on a greener path, the Environment Department’s latest climate targets, released in July, are “clear and much more ambitious than previous” targets, according to Thang Do, a research fellow at the Australian National University’s Crawford School of Public Policy.

With the ministry’s new strategy, the reduction target for greenhouse gases by 2030 was raised from nine percent compared to normal operation in the previous year to 43.5 percent. Emissions are expected to peak in 2035 before falling to net zero in 2050.

The problem, Das argued, is that the new guidelines have yet to be implemented.

“We’re giving him six months to see it,” she said.

Arrests of climate activists have made deciphering Vietnam’s energy intentions even more difficult.

Khanh worked closely with the government to find a way to reduce coal use, while Dang Dinh Bach, an NGO worker, made it his mission to educate residents about the health impacts of potential power plant projects.

He “offered them advice so they could understand their rights and exercise those rights,” Bach’s wife, Tran Phuong Thao, told AFP.

In 2017, Bach and his nonprofit group Law & Policy of Sustainable Development helped send the government into a rare swoop over a power plant in Binh Thuan province that it had allowed to dump a million cubic meters of coal mud into the sea.

He was arrested in June 2021 and sentenced to five years in prison this year.

Though there is little time to lose for Vietnam, which is one of the countries hardest hit by climate change due to its long and densely populated coastline, researcher Thang believes there is little choice but to be patient.

“The entire economy is now dependent on coal, which makes transition very difficult,” he said.

“It is not an easy decision to simply close a coal-fired power plant and open a solar and wind power plant tomorrow. It takes a lot of time and resources and mindsets to change.”

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