Coal fired power station silhouette at sunset. Photo: iStock
Coal fired power station silhouette at sunset. Photo: iStock

Electricity in cities is taken for granted. Most of us turn on our lights with little understanding of where the energy comes from, even less the impact coal-fired power stations have on communities living in their shadow. As a city girl myself, I used to be the same.

While it’s a fact that Vietnam needs energy to continue its growth, it need not come at the cost of our environment, our air and our health.

Not that life in the city is easy. Because of high levels of air pollution, a clear blue sky is just a dream to me and others. Some days it feels like we’re choking. Unsurprisingly, Harvard University researchers project that by 2030, air pollution from coal-fired power stations could result in 19,220 premature deaths per year in Vietnam.

We simply cannot allow the 40 new coal power plants planned for our country to be built.

Strangely enough, the key to our future lies not inside our own country, but in the meeting rooms of international financial institutions such as HSBC.

For years HSBC has been one of the largest financiers of coal projects around the world, providing more than US$850 million in project finance lending to new coal power plants since 2010, with most of that going to Southeast Asia.

In 2018, it saw the light, ending finance to coal-fired power stations because of the devastating impacts on the global climate.

Except, of course, that it added a caveat or two.

One of these was to leave the door open for dirty coal power in Vietnam, Bangladesh and Indonesia.

Daniel Klier, the bank’s global head of sustainability, explained this “was to appropriately balance humanitarian needs with the need to transition to a low-carbon economy.”

HSBC’s justification of coal as a humanitarian act is cynical and offensive in the extreme.

That’s why this week an open letter was sent to John Flint, the bank’s chief executive officer, on behalf of 13 organizations – including my own – from the countries HSBC clearly believes don’t deserve clean air.

Currently, for example, it is still involved in the Vinh Tan 3 project in Vietnam, not surprisingly in one of the worst areas for pollution in the country. It is also funding the dredging of the Payra deep-sea port in Bangladesh, which would open the gates for coal imports to fuel new coal plants, a ticking carbon bomb on a global scale.

If HSBC is to be taken seriously, it must extend its “no coal” policies globally. Not just for people’s lives on the line in directly affected countries, but also to avoid the climate impacts that touch us all.

HSBC and others would no doubt argue that countries such as Vietnam are willing to trade clean air for more energy infrastructure. This is wrong on a number of levels.

As the cost of renewable energy has plummeted in the past decade, we no longer need to choose between energy and a healthy environment. Even when external costs are not taken into account, by 2020, solar power is expected to be cheaper than coal power in Vietnam.

But we do not need to wait until 2020 to see that happen. A total of 88 solar power plants will be put into operation by June 30 this year.

We continue to get coal power, not because it’s the better choice, but because the international finance we need for infrastructure ties our hands behind our backs.

Every coal deal involves a consortium of public and private finance, especially from Japan, China and South Korea.

As part of every financial package, corporations ailing from the shift to clean energy in their domestic markets, such as Doosan Heavy of Korea and Toshiba of Japan, always get the construction contracts to build coal plants in Vietnam.

HSBCs role is a critical one. If it were to close its loopholes and instead invest in clean energy, it would further remove the legitimacy of this kind of predatory coal finance.

In doing so, it would literally give us room to breathe.

Nguyen Thi Hang is manager of clean air and energy at GreenID, a leading environmental and energy civil society organization in Vietnam.

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