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Vietnam’s multi-pronged battle against climate change

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The confluence of climate change, civil society and coal-fired plants places Vietnam’s power system at an inflection point.

The outlook for Vietnam’s drive toward climate-change adaptation initiatives are being tested in Hanoi, as the government mulls over plans to rebalance the energy mix between renewables and coal-fired electricity plants.

Despite the emerging role of civil society, disagreements on the 10-year Power Development Plan drafts are impeding clean-energy development and calling into question the country’s position as a leading renewable-energy market in Southeast Asia.

The Communist Party of Vietnam operates under a top-down, centralized policymaking system. Its leadership knows it will take a web of actors and a chorus of voices from citizen scientists, climatologists, non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and international partners to combat climate change, since the nation is hurtling toward an economic, social, and environmental crisis if policies to reduce the carbon intensity of growth are not addressed. 

While Vietnam maintains it will stop building coal-fired power plants, the nuanced policy shift to renewables is a dramatic pivot for central planners struggling to break free from the country’s dependence on coal. The dilemma rests against the backdrop of not replacing coal with renewables and securing financing from other sources besides China, especially since Beijing announced it was canceling financing of overseas coal-fired power plants. 

The present climate-change threats to urban and industrial areas, especially in and around Ho Chi Minh City, where power demand has grown by about 10% per year for the last decade, places large sections of the economy at risk.

The Mekong Delta has been most adversely impacted from extreme climate and weather patterns, especially in 2015-16 when it suffered the worst saltwater intrusion since 1991, and then again in 2019-20.

A recently published World Bank report on Vietnam’s climate and development underscores the urgency to adapt to a new normal, with forecast models predicting that the costs to the economy generated by climate change could exceed US$523 billion by 2050. 

The World Bank, the Vietnamese government and private enterprises are teaming up on a nearly $400 million program to aid nine provinces dealing with extreme weather patterns and the problems posed by the Chinese dams. Vietnamese government planners now project that about 45% of the Mekong Delta will be affected by saltwater intrusion by 2030 if hydropower dams and reservoirs continue to stop water from flowing downstream. 

With its more than 3,000 kilometers of coastline, Vietnam presents a major environmental and food-security challenge, especially in the Mekong Delta, where 22% of its population lives. Rising seas continue to inundate low-lying regions, especially in the delta.

In response to the climate-change threats, the government has undertaken a range of actions, including ratifying the Kyoto Protocol in 1994; initiating the National Targeted Program to Respond to Climate Change (NTP-RCC) in 2008; approving the National Strategy for Climate Change (NSCC) in 2011; and formulating the National Strategy for Green Growth 5 (NSGG) in 2012.

US commitment to Vietnam climate policy 

Policy officials in Hanoi recognize the difficulties of meeting Vietnam’s pledges to halt deforestation, cut methane emissions by 30% and halt investments in new coal power generation, and in scaling up renewable energy.

The Research Institute for Climate Change was established in 2008 under an agreement between the US and Vietnam to cooperate on training and research to produce healthy and sustainable ecosystems in a changing climate. 

As a result, the international donor community has been responding to the needs of the Mekong Delta region. Further, the Mekong-US Partnership continues to strengthen regional governance and promotes transparency to support local voices and provide platforms to advance and improve water security policy dialogues. 

The US-Vietnam Climate Change Working Group was first established in 2008 with high- level support from both countries. Over the course of the Lower Mekong Initiative, from 2009 to 2020, the US Department of State and the Agency for International Development (USAID) have provided nearly $3.5 billion in assistance to the five partner countries, Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar, Thailand and Vietnam.

Washington understands what’s at stake. Policy experts know that mobilizing governments to adapt to or mitigate climate change requires an investment of scientific, political and economic capital.

Most recently, USAID and Vietnam’s Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Development (MARD) opened a new chapter of cooperation on environmental issues by signing the first bilateral partnership and a $50 million agreement on climate-change cooperation in the Mekong Delta for the period 2022-2027. 

“I commend USAID and MARD for working together to help the people of the Mekong Delta region adapt to the changing climate and reduce agricultural emissions, since addressing the climate crisis must be a collective effort, and it must incorporate everything from building environmental resilience, to reducing emissions, to conserving biodiversity,” US Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman said in June.

Although there has been a historical basis in Vietnam’s recognition of the perils of climate change with the nation’s signing of the 2002 Kyoto Protocol, this action was spurred on because the World Bank, the UN Development Program and the Swedish International Development Agency (SIDA) had pledged funds to the developing country. 

In Erin Zink’s 2013 book Hot Science, High Water, he writes that the “shared award of a Nobel Peace Prize in 2007 to Al Gore and the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) set in motion an effort to redistribute the power to define Vietnamese responses to projections of sea level.”

The attention that climate change garnered initiated the flow of international funds to support the Vietnamese government’s sustainability focus on the Mekong Delta.

For example, the European Union, Germany, France, Denmark, Sweden, Hungary and Romania are recognized as the largest partners and donors focused on assisting Vietnam’s climate-action programs in the Mekong Delta. The EU has provided a US$111 million energy-sector program to increase access to sustainable clean energy in rural, mountainous, sea and island areas in Bac Lieu, An Giang, and Can Tho provinces.

In Can Tho, on a hot and humid day in June, Prime Minister Pham Minh Chinh introduced the Mekong Delta Regional Master Plan to the Netherlands. It underscores the Vietnamese government’s support for sustainable development, encourages farmers enrolling in next-generation cooperatives and boosts international donor and investor confidence in transforming the Mekong Delta into a regional agricultural business hub.

Civil society under pressure

As a result of Vietnam’s framework for climate-change mitigation, new actors, largely from civil society, emerged to push the agenda for climate change and environmentalism forward.

The foundation of civil society began at the village level. The successful expansion of economic renovation, or doi moi reforms, resulted in the participation of local citizens to discuss policy and projects. Entrenched groups like the Vietnamese Women’s Association, the Ho Chi Minh Youth Union and the Vietnam Farmers Association offer influential pathways to address climate change, nature loss and pollution.

The Politiburo’s conundrum is the reconciliation of civil society’s function in implementing, localizing and monitoring Sustainable Development Goals and in ultimately abetting private sector investment to meet the nation’s energy requirements.

Party resolutions such as No 04-NQ/TW issued in 2018 pointed out the need to “develop and implement a mechanism to protect and encourage citizens to report, condemn and actively fight against any acts of degradation, self-evolution, self-transformation.”

Vietnam’s tightrope balancing act offers the promise of improving society’s awareness and enabling all stakeholders’ participation in sustainable development efforts, especially among domestic organizations, like civil society and the international community.

At the same time, new technologies and multiple social-media platforms have ushered in a wave of civic-minded environmentalism and with it the expansion of young voices to signal urgent climate change problems and a growing civil society bandwidth.

According to the Ministry of Information and Communications, Vietnam has more than 93.5 million smartphone subscribers reaching nearly 73% of the nation’s adults. “Ordinary citizens’ access to the web is behind a rising tide of environmental activism,” said Tran Thi Thuy Binh, a member of the Vietnam Forum for Environmental Journalists in Hanoi.

The emergence of civil society, however, sometimes faces scrutiny by local authorities, as evidenced in the recent sentencing of high-profile anti-coal advocate Nguy Thi Khanh to two years in prison for tax evasion.

For some Western observers, the government’s decision to single out environmentalists on these charges may signal a step back for climate change action and contrasts with the rhetoric and the government’s positive commitment to the UN Climate Conference (COP26) held last November. 

According to David Hutt, writing for The Diplomat, “The Communist Party is committed to tackling climate change but only on its own terms. It needs expert opinion (sometimes public pressure from activists) but won’t countenance all criticism, especially when it’s coming from the growing civil-society sector.”

In response to such accusations, the government insisted that Khanh was investigated and prosecuted for an economic offense, namely breaking the rules on tax management, and she pleaded guilty.

The nation’s measurable advances in the adoption of social media and the overall trajectory of civil society align with pressures for more transparency from key donors and lenders including the Asian Development Bank, AusAID, Oxfam, SIDA, USAID, the World Bank and others.

The development of a sustainable Vietnam environmental policy has been historically augmented by the pressure from civil society for green public spaces and for sustainable farming practices.

To be clear, domestic and well-organized NGOs like the Center for Marine Life Conservation and Community Development (MCD), the Center for Sustainable Rural Development, the Center for Human and Nature (PanNature) and the Mekong Environment Forum are successfully engaging with environmental policy experts and provincial government officials through outreach with citizens in the form of dialogue and workshops. 

“NGOs play a critical role in defining outcomes in the Mekong and the work of local civil society organizations in Thailand, Cambodia and to some extent in Vietnam, are extremely impactful,” said Brian Eyler, Southeast Asia program director for the Stimson Center, a Washington-based think-tank.

As the author of The Last Days of the Mighty Mekong, he believes that community-based participation plays a significant role in the COP26 commitments from nations in the region. 

This convergence and growth of civil society actors and associations and cooperatives are in ascendancy just as a new report warns that temperatures could rise by as much as 6 degrees Celsius by century’s end. 

“As the rise in mean temperature accelerates, we will soon witness new extremes in hot weather,” said Associate Professor Ngo Duc Thanh, one of the scientists engaged in the latest climate change study from the University of Science and Technology of Hanoi.

Ongoing challenges

Despite increased attention being given to Vietnam’s tremendous vulnerability to climate change, urban development is actually going in the opposite direction; increasing development into critical farmland, wetlands, floodplains, and coastal ecosystems that undermine a city’s ability to protect itself from sea-level rise, flooding, and super-storms.

While the government’s energy policy has been mixed at times, the desire of Vietnamese citizens for a cleaner environment makes them reach for the nation’s abundant wind and sunshine to power them and the nation to national development and to be carbon neutral by 2050. 

Although upgrades are required for its power grid, Vietnam’s rate of increase and adoption in the solar plus wind share of the electricity mix in 2020 was the fastest in the broader Asia-Pacific region according to the International Renewable Energy Agency.

However, this shift will not come cheap. By Electricity of Vietnam’s (EVN’s) estimates, this upgrade will require Vietnam to attract more than $150 billion in new capital, while this remains a budgetary challenge, the investment in renewables enables Vietnam to meet its COP26 climate summit pledge and provides citizens with a better quality of life.

It may come as a surprise that Vietnam’s constitution and political culture prioritize public participation in decision-making. In the vortex of the many socio-political challenges facing the Communist Party, their history informs them that they do rule, but not necessarily govern. 

After all, there’s a familiar expression among citizens that call out for a participatory prominence, “People know, people discuss, people do, and people monitor.” 

By James Borton – Asia Times – August 29, 2022

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