Vietnam moves towards a coal-free future

Vietnamese Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung last week announced a plan to halt all new coal developments, a huge about-turn for a country which previously had the biggest coal expansion plans in Southeast Asia.

In the latest blow to the coal industry, the Vietnamese government has announced plans to phase out the use of the commodity in the country and shift instead to cleaner sources of power such as natural gas and renewable energy.

Vietnamese Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung, in a statement released on January 19 and translated into English by Vietnamese sustainability non-profit GreenID, acknowledged a need “to review development plans of all new coal plants, and halt any new coal power development”. 

International environmental groups such as Greenpeace welcomed this news as “one of the biggest victories for environmental and climate advocates in Vietnam”, while local non-profits called on the Vietnamese government to take more concrete steps to shift the country away from coal.  

In his announcement, the Prime Minister said that in order to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, it is important to begin replacing coal with clean-burning natural gas and more importantly, accelerate investments in renewable energy.

His statement is a momentous about-turn for Vietnam, which prior to the announcement had the biggest plans among Southeast Asian countries for new coal-fired power plants. It had 44 gigawatts of planned development, and another 17GW already under construction.

Greenpeace Southeast Asia coal campaigner Arif Fiyanto said in a statement that Vietnam’s decision to end coal use was the “Paris agreement in action”, referring to the pact signed by 195 government leaders last December in the French capital.

There, leaders agreed to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and limit global temperature rise to two degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels. Many countries promised to shift away from fossil fuels to renewable power to achieve this.

At the summit, Vietnam pledged to reduce its emissions by eight per cent compared to business as usual levels by 2030, and stretch the target to 25 per cent with international support.

The remarks by the country’s leader come a few days before Vietnam is due to release its revised Power Development Plan, which observers expect will reflect lower electricity demand projections than previous versions, as well as a shift away from coal towards renewables in the energy mix. 

According to the US Energy Information Administration, coal made up 36 per cent of the country’s electricity generation capacity last year, and was projected to account for 56 per cent of power production by 2030. 

Hanoi-based non-government organisation GreenID, meanwhile, responded to the news with a cautious welcome, saying that while the prime minister’s commitment was a welcome one, it still expected new coal plants to be included in the upcoming power development plan. 

Nguy Thi Khanh, executive director, GreenID, said that “if the prime minister is serious about moving away from coal, we hope that the government will comprehensively reassess all proposed coal plants”. 

“All existing and new coal plants should be fitted with pollution controls and higher efficiency standards in line with international best practice,” she added. 

If the prime minister is serious about moving away from coal, we hope that the government will comprehensively reassess all proposed coal plants.

Nguy Thi Khanh, executive director, GreenID

The negative effects of coal were underscored last October when Greenpeace, together with America’s Harvard University, released a study showing that pollution from coal-fired power plants in Vietnam killed 4,300 people in 2011. This figure would have risen to 25,000 premature deaths per year if the country’s existing coal expansion plans had been approved, said Greenpeace.

In August last year, rain in Vietnam’s Quang Ninh province also flooded open pit coal mines and power plants in the region, causing a toxic slurry of chemicals from these facilities to flow into surrounding villages, sparking health and safety concerns.

Greenpeace’s Fiyanto noted that “driven by concerns from people more aware than ever of the health and environmental impacts of fossil fuels, we are on the cusp of an energy revolution”.

“But it needs to move faster and policy announcements such as this are just the first step,” he added.

Since Paris, other countries have also announced significant cuts to their coal use, sparking analysts to predict the decline of the industry in the mid- to long-term.

China, one of the largest consumers of coal, announced earlier this month that it plans to close 4,300 coal mines in a bid to cut pollution and emissions. It will also halt the approval of new mines until at least 2019

In India, too, the International Energy Agency found that coal imports declined by 15 per cent year on year in the April to December period last year, compared to 2014 figures. Some analysts interpreted this as a sign that India has reached peak coal consumption, with a decline expected in coming years. 

“Vietnam is playing its part in kicking our global addiction to coal,” said Fiyanto. “With Indian coal imports falling and China implementing a three-year ban on new coal mines, there is a definite sense that change is in the air in Asia”. 

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