Vietnam Heads for Paris with Dirty Hands

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.

Why isn't this bigger news? Perhaps because everyone is so busy patting themselves on the back about the recent signing of the Trans-Pacific Partnership. Few mention the impact of moving China's factory state into a country the size of its big toe.

Late last month, President Obama made the mistake of engaging in an impromptu interview of one of his favorite authors—a woman from Iowa named Marilynne Robinson. Most of the conversation centered on literature, but at some point, she took a sharp turn into the weeds of global trade, imploring the president to declare war on the concept of competition.

Robinson: All the competition has meant, it seems, is that labor is cheap and environmental standards are low.

Obama: Yeah.

Robinson: But, you know China has a vile ecology around its industrial zones. It is running out of appropriate cheap labor and it's going into crisis.

Obama: Right.

Robinson: And what does that mean? It means that all of that capital will bundle itself up and land in another place that is relatively more advantageous.

Obama: Right.

In addition to promising a windfall of new manufacturing jobs and tariff exemptions the 12-nation trade pact has been advertised as a golden goose—one that will require Vietnam to hold businesses here to higher environmental standards. Assuming that is true (and Robinson is wrong) who will enforce those rules?

A World Bank researcher who asked not to be named confirmed that the migrating industries have huge polluting potential that could only be curbed by changing Vietnam's decentralized nature of monitoring and enforcement.

There is reason to believe him.

Last year, in a dispatch titled “the Whole Country is Polluted,” the Ministry of Health's Department of Occupational Disease blamed a failure to police industry for a rise in chronic diseases. The dispatch ended with a dizzying pledge to begin monitoring everything from radioactive waste disposal to noise pollution at once.

The World Bank official countered that the decentralized nature of enforcement makes this difficult. “It's province to province,” he said.

Thanks to climate change, before the government can sort any of that out, some of those provinces may sink into the sea.

An NGO called the Institute of Social and Environmental Transition is urging bureaucrats in the Mekong Delta to coordinate their efforts to cope with the simultaneous subsidence of the soil and rising of the seas.

The group claims that with enough ingenuity, cooperation and forward thinking, Vietnam can convert its former “rice basket” into a virtual archipelago of fish farming metropolises sustained by canals, dikes and freshwater filtration systems.

“It's not like a hopeless situation,” said Stephen Tyler, ISET's man in the water-logged city of Can Tho. “It will require concerted effort and collaboration between different levels of government, different provinces and different departments. If they all pursue their own narrow mandates they will work at cross-purposes.”

Tyler says he is cautiously optimistic. Vietnamese people have been working together to beat impossible odds for over a thousand years.

But when asked to point to a single success, he described a program up in Danang that offers non-residents living in coastal shanties access to loans to purchase more storm-resistant building materials.

The program is now self-sustaining, Tyler said cheerfully. It was only after we hung up that the whole notion sounded a bit like a last ditch scramble to bolt the deck chairs down on the Titanic.

Calvin Godfrey is a Vietnam-based freelance writer.