Vietnam faces some of the greatest and most urgent threats from climate change of any country in the world. However, a number of new initiatives are starting to address these challenges, ranging from a national transition to green energy to a UN-backed push for sustainable urban development.
By Umair Jamal
While Vietnam has largely succeeded in combatting the coronavirus, COVID-19 is not the only crisis facing the country, as the threat posed by climate change is reported to be, in some ways, just as serious.
According to the latest Global Climate Risk Index report, published in January, Vietnam’s economy is among the most vulnerable in the world to the impacts of climate change.
Another report by the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (UNIPCC) indicates that Vietnam’s climate challenges are much greater than usually suggested.
Vietnam needs to start implementing effective adaptation and mitigation strategies to contain the challenge as climate impacts are quickly getting stronger and more difficult to predict.
New climate change report underlines threats for Vietnam
The Global Climate Risk Index report ranked Vietnam 13th among the economies most affected by climate change between 2000 and 2019.
The report by German environmental think tank Germanwatch examines quantified impacts of extreme weather incidents like floods, storms, heatwaves and droughts in terms of deaths and economic losses globally.
To gauge the impact of climate change over a given year, the report ranks countries in four categories: death toll, deaths per 100,000 residents, absolute losses in purchasing power parities (PPP) and losses per GDP unit. According to these criteria, the report placed Vietnam 15th in terms of annual fatalities, 11th in losses in PPP and 47th for both deaths per 100,000 people and losses per GDP unit.
In the index’s 2019 report, Vietnam stood at 38th in terms of climate change’s overall impact on the economy. But according to index evaluations between 1999 and 2018, Vietnam was one of six economies most affected by climate change. Within this period, Vietnam suffered 226 extreme weather events and saw economic losses of over US$2 billion per year.
Another recent study, published by the UNIPCC in 2018, says that rising sea levels could flood three times more land in Southeast Asia than previously projected. Referred to by some as a “Doomsday Report”, the study suggests that Vietnam’s Ho Chi Minh City could be underwater by 2050 and millions of people in Vietnam’s Mekong Delta—the country’s main rice-growing region—could be forced to flee coastal areas.
“Continued high emissions with Antarctic instability could entail land currently home to one-third of Bangladeshis and Vietnam’s people falling below the high tide line,” read the UNIPCC report.
“Around 1 million people left the delta over the last decade, putting pressure on urban areas such as Ho Chi Minh City that are already struggling with climate-related problems of their own,” said Ho Chi Minh City-based journalist Mike Tatarski.
More importantly, along the banks of the 2,700-mile-long Mekong River, used by millions of Vietnamese for food and transportation, the stakes are extremely high.
The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) has warned that sand dredging and unsustainable groundwater use are exacerbating the threat of climate impacts along the Mekong.
The Vietnamese government has few options to address the issue as it has little control over what happens with the Mekong river before it reaches Vietnam.
How should Vietnam adapt to its climate challenges?
Speaking at the 2021 Climate Adaptation Summit (CAS 2021), Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc said, “Our economy may only meet around 30% of our climate adaptation demands, and Vietnam needs an additional US$35 billion between 2021 and 2030.”
Phuc pledged to restructure Vietnam’s economy to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions and “strengthen the resilience and adaptation of communities, economic stakeholders and the ecosystem.”
While the threats of climate change are dire, experts believe there is reason for hope if Vietnam implements adaptation and mitigation strategies effectively.
It is important that Vietnam reconsider its coal-based electricity generation plans and shift to renewable power sources. Dao Xuan Lai, head of the Climate Change and Environment Unit at the United Nations Development Program’s (UNDP) Vietnam office, believes that the country holds massive potential for renewable energy and that developing this could help offset damage caused by greenhouse emissions.
“We found that Vietnam has available up to 85,000 megawatts of solar, and 21,000 megawatts of wind,” he told Mongabay. “If we combine these two figures and if Vietnam can develop all of them before 2050, for example, and we compare it with the figure of total electricity to be installed in Vietnam by 2030, which is 130,000 megawatts, it’s actually very close.”
Vietnam also needs to invest more heavily to make its cities sustainable and develop their resiliency to reduce the risks posed by climate crisis. Ho Chi Minh City is of particular concern as rapid growth has seen planners develop swampy areas to the city’s south and east that earlier acted as floodplains. “Recently, because the city is expanding and because that land is cheap, billions and billions of dollars in investment is pouring into these areas,” said Melissa Merryweather, director of Green Consult-Asia and chair of the Vietnam Green Building Council. “This is where it becomes a game-changer,” she added, noting the dangers posed by the growth.
In 2019, the UN Secretary-General issued work plans for infrastructure and cities that would help achieve carbon neutrality by 2050. The plan gives particular focus to climate-friendly transport, localized finance mechanisms and resilient and zero-carbon building standards as steps to strengthen city systems against threats posed by climate change.
New technologies also offer effective solutions in the urban context. Armida Salsiah Alisjahbana, UN under-secretary-general and executive secretary of the UN’s Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific (ESCAP), said that “Smart grids and district energy solutions, or real-time traffic management, to waste management and water systems and smart technologies will enable our future cities to operate more effectively.”
Developing an inclusive regional adaptation plan is essential for Vietnam and other Southeast Asian countries to mitigate the impact of climate change, from cities to the banks of the Mekong River and its delta.
Above all, people should be educated about the dangers of climate change and the urgent need to adapt. As Dao Xuan Lai of the UNDP put it, “It’s coming faster and becoming more difficult to predict, so we need to prepare…and express that knowledge so that we can protect ourselves, our relatives and the people.”