By: Calvin Godfrey

Vietnam belongs to the sad club of countries whose small carbon footprints offer no protection against bleak climate futures. Only the low-lying Netherlands—a country with a GDP five times Vietnam’s—stands to lose as much land from a slight rise in sea levels.

Given the stakes, Vietnam might be expected to walk into Paris with a plan fit to raise European eyebrows: a strategy so full of windmills and solar panels it would make Dutch heads tilt.

You would be wrong. Vietnam has had the dirty development pedal to the metal for over a decade, increasing emissions by roughly 10 percent annually. Even though Vietnam began at practically nothing, its ambitious acceleration leaves it high in the running for fastest-growing polluter on the planet. 

Its Paris presentation is filled with cheap and dirty coal plants that closely resemble the clinker that closed the national highway this spring when the residents of Vinh Tan literally stopped traffic and refused to disperse when provincial riot police arrived.

Chinese interests built a coal-fired plant in their sleepy fishing village that spewed black coal dust into their rice. When local authorities failed to take action, they rose up. The violent fracas (which included reports of Molotov cocktail attacks) caused the authorities to begin wetting down trucks transporting slate to previously uncovered ash mounds.

After lofty promises to clean up their act, authorities now look like they are planning to relocate whole hamlets. Three other coal plants remain under construction in the same fishing village, which sits on the edge of a province that is home to at least a dozen wind power projects caught up in red tape.

But the die is already cast; Vietnam began importing loads of cheap Indonesian coal last year.

The baseline being bandied about in Paris calls for a four-fold increase in emissions by 2030. Vietnam has only offered to scale that back a hair (eight percent) if the world hands it a big sack of cash—hardly an enticing investment opportunity.

Clean energy lobbyists have been hammering the socialist republic to start charging competitive prices for power. Only then, they argue, will people move toward energy efficiency and invest in things like wind and solar plants.

This summer, Virginia Foote, chairman of the Vietnam Business Forum, publicly asked a spokesperson for Vietnam’s Ministry of Natural Resources and Environment to explain the rationale for making coal 57 percent of the country’s energy infrastructure.

Pham Thanh Tung blamed “implementing difficulties” in a number of oil and gas projects for the country’s outsized coal needs. “Overall, developing countries tend to use coal as a primary source of energy serving for country development,” he said before adding that the World Bank would help them review their upcoming master plan.

Last month, the bank did provide advice in the form of a report entitled Exploring a Low Carbon Development Path for Vietnam, which laid out how the country could have growth, productivity and better air while saving billions of dollars in coal purchases.  By all accounts, it is likely to disappear into the country’s rolling hills of unheeded development advice.

In the end, the usual suspects of foreign lenders will no doubt hand Vietnam the money it needs to build a Frankenstein grid of ever-smaller hydropower dams, cheap coal plants and a long-delayed octet of Russian nuclear power plants. 

Those who have a hard time imagining what all this will look like should check out the US Embassy’s new (frequently crimson) air-quality monitor in Hanoi. Or read this GreenPeace and Harvard University study, which predicts that coal will claim roughly 25,000 Vietnamese lives per year by 2030.

The report’s author told me he hoped the findings would push the government to at least discuss the human cost of its purportedly cheap plan.  Body count aside, many critics of the power plan say it doesn’t account for the ports, roads and rails required to disperse enough coal to power Vietnam’s ambitious plan.

The government, for its part, has said virtually nothing coherent about any of this.

Investors stand ready to build profitable wind and solar plants, given the right price, but little is being done even to meet them halfway. As such, investment in clean energy projects has plummeted to near nothing in the last five years.