Construction of a wind farm in Tra Vinh province, Vietnam, on October 17, 2021. Photo: VNA / Phuc Son

Climate change places the world in the midst of a deep global transformation resulting from natural disasters, weather extremes, and food and water insecurity. The US understands that Southeast Asia, and especially Vietnam, is one of the most vulnerable regions to this developing environmental emergency.

Under a welcoming springtime blue sky, John Kerry, the US special envoy for climate, met with Vietnamese President Nguyen Xuan Phuc in Hanoi late last month. Kerry, a Vietnam War veteran and former secretary of state in Barack Obama’s administration, reiterated America’s commitments to helping Vietnam achieve net-zero emissions by 2050. 

Vietnam needs little reminder that there’s an urgency to accelerate national efforts to limit warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels, and to strengthen efforts to adapt to the impacts of climate change. The country’s impressive accomplishments over the last several decades in reducing poverty are in jeopardy of being derailed. The solutions will require fundamental transformations in energy development.

“President Biden is very committed to helping Vietnam in a big way to transition from coal to new technologies,” Kerry said at an event hosted by the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) in Hanoi. 

The climate crisis is real and it requires urgent mobilization by nations and citizens if there is to be a successful decoupling from the burning of coal, oil, gas, and forests. This shift to sustainable forms of renewable energy, clean transportation, and regenerative agriculture is the only actionable roadmap. Everyone has a part to play. 

Vietnam’s leaders want to frame a new story about a cleaner future. No one denies that Vietnam’s fast-track economic growth over the past two decades arrived at the expense of the environment, leading to polluted waterways, extensive loss of wildlife, a sharp decline in biodiversity and a near collapse of fisheries.

The Communist Party has consistently pledged to balance ecological improvements as part of its march toward continued economic growth. At the 26th UN Climate Change Conference (COP26), Prime Minister Pham Minh Chinh underscored the critical need to address climate change as Vietnam remains one of the countries worst affected by increases in severe weather patterns. 

Chinh offered assurance that Vietnam would “make use of our own domestic resources, along with cooperation and support of the international community in order to achieve net-zero emissions.”

This shift toward a green, circular, low-carbon development model necessitates some difficult decisions. Vietnam’s eighth Power Development Plan (PDP8) proposes a shift away from coal-power energy and an urgent move toward renewables. Unfortunately, Vietnam’s National Load Dispatch Center (NLDC) revealed that it couldn’t approve any solar or wind energy facilities in 2022 because of electrical-grid constraints.

This situation only accentuates the need for America’s support to expand and strengthen Vietnam’s potential to become recognized as an ASEAN leader in renewable energy. The nation’s wind resources and accelerated power demand position it to lead the green transition in Southeast Asia. 

Among members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, Vietnam already has the most ambitious wind-power development plan, with a projected target of 11,800 megawatts by 2036.

The Mekong Delta is a region that can benefit from such wind-powered energy, but that has been threatened by climate change. The delta has a coastline, including islands, with a length of about 700 kilometers. Soc Trang province holds much promise for wind-power development with a coastline of 70km and steady strong winds. The government has approved 20 wind-power projects for this year and 2023. 

The timing corresponds with the continuing US climate commitments in the region. USAID with a budget of up to $2.9 million has announced a three-year project aimed to protect key coastal habitats in the Mekong Delta to increase sustainability of fisheries, enhance climate change adaptation, and improve biodiversity.

Furthermore, USAID’s clean-energy interventions with a former enemy that is now a comprehensive partner include assistance in encouraging policy development measures to increase investments in the clean energy sector and to easing the process of investing in renewable energy.

Hanoi’s political leadership recognizes that Washington can increase its financial and technical assistance to help the nation meet climate challenges and support its renewable-energy developments. The Vietnam Green Growth Strategy (VGGS) has set targets to achieve low-emission development and help the nation’s efforts to mitigate climate change. 

USAID continues to play a supporting role in Asia’s Low Emission Development Strategy partnership, which provides training, knowledge sharing, and cooperation to more effective use of LEDS tools and practices in development decision-making and financing.

This voluntary regional network advances country-led and specific strategic plans to promote economic growth while reducing greenhouse-gas (GHG) emissions without causing trade-offs to other environmental pressures in the region. 

There is increasing confidence in Washington that Vietnam’s leadership will meet the climate-change crisis. The country’s National Green Growth Strategy for 2021-2030 with a vision toward 2050 reflects a goal and strategy to accomplish green growth that will enable all citizens to participate in economic prosperity and enjoy a sustainable environment.  

The government’s optimum plan calls for reduction in GHG emissions per GDP by at least 15% by 2030. Reaching this goal necessitates abandoning new coal-fired plants, switching where possible to natural gas, and embracing efficiency for the remaining coal power plants.

Hanoi knows that the nation has relied too heavily on fossil fuels and overexploitation of natural resources to meet its development needs, but now with rising sea levels washing away its coastline, it has no choice but to transform its economy toward a more sustainable growth model. 

James Borton

James Borton is a senior fellow at the Foreign Policy Institute at Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies and the author of Dispatches from the South China Sea: Navigating to Common Ground.