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Q&A: Goldman Environmental Prize Winner Khanh Nguy Thi on Vietnam’s Energy Transition

April 25, 2018

On Monday, seven environmental heroes took the stage to receive the prestigious Goldman Environment Prize, the world’s largest award honoring grassroots environmental activists. Among them was Khanh Nguy Thi from Vietnam, who, through scientific research and advocacy, is helping to drive the country’s energy transition toward a sustainable, greener future. Her efforts, led by an approach that prioritizes multi-stakeholder collaboration, halted the construction of two hydro-power plants in a national park, helped to convince the government to revise its long-term energy projections, and drove a 20,000 MW reduction of planned coal expansion.

InAsia editor Alma Freeman sat down with Khanh during a visit to The Asia Foundation’s headquarters in San Francisco to discuss the trend toward green growth in Vietnam and her pioneering work as founder and executive director of the Hanoi-based NGO GreenID.

Many Asian governments are beginning to reshape their economic development strategies around green growth policies, realizing that growth alone at the stake of the environment is no longer viable. Can you talk about Vietnam’s green growth strategy?

Green growth is the new trend at the global level, and Vietnam is adopting to this trend quite well at the policy level. In 2012, the government issued a green-growth strategy with three major goals: to reduce emissions, increase development of renewable energy, and encourage green lifestyle, which means changing people’s behavior. The current prime minister himself has declared that we cannot sacrifice our environment at the price of growth. But the concept is relatively new with most decision-makers and the general public, and implementation is now the main issue. To bridge the gap between policy and implementation, we need more commitment and effort from different stakeholders, both state and non-state.

Vietnam is well endowed with renewable resources, yet as an emerging economy, demand for energy is on the rise. What do you see as the biggest challenges balancing growth and protecting the environment?

The current energy demand forecast follows the conventional concept that increased energy usage is an indicator of development. But improved energy efficiency can reduce the rate of increase and renewables can provide some of the new demand for energy in a way in which Vietnam still meets its development goals, albeit with better efficiency and lower environmental impact. Vietnam is in a good position to transition toward sustainable energy because of our resources. We must focus on renewable energy development to preserve our landscape for tourism, agriculture, aquaculture, and to maintain our development.

The exploration of solar and wind energy over the last four years also provides promising opportunities to explore our domestic renewable resources. Leveraging our domestic renewable resources will help generate local jobs and support remote communities. The other opportunity in renewable energy is that it can help increase our energy independence by reducing the dependence on imported coal and fossil fuels. Renewable energy also has the potential to build our domestic human resources and technology capacity, which are very important for future generations. Experts and policymakers also need to be well informed about new technology and renewable energy sources— an important step toward renewable energy development.

Through capacity building, awareness raising, and research, GreenID works nationally and at the local level to promote clean air and water, sustainable energy, and green growth in Vietnam. In 2016, under your leadership, GreenID joined other organizations to convince the government to revise its long-term national energy projections. How did you do it?

The 2011 national energy plan set out to build 75,000 MW of coal power by 2030. I thought, this will be a disaster for our nation if it goes through. But not many were publicly questioning coal reliance in Vietnam at that time. We were one of the first groups to examine this issue and created a database to engage with energy experts to analyze the policy. We found that it would be very dangerous for national energy security if we moved forward with a power plan that relies on coal, especially because two-thirds of coal will be imported, with domestic production only covering one-third of demand.

We looked at the potential of energy efficiency and came up with a set of recommendations to the government to reduce 40,000 MW of coal power and nuclear from the plan. No one believed that cutting so much coal and nuclear power was feasible while also meeting energy demands. But we found that’s not true. This evidence-based research, combined with a series of workshops and collaboration, helped lead the government in 2016 to cut about 20,000 MW total power capacity out of original plan. This was a victory for us. But the revised power plan still aims to have 55,000 MW of coal power, which is still very high and accounts for 53 percent of energy generation. We hope to reduce it further. Now, we are coming up with a new analysis focusing on solar, wind, and natural gas that can cover this gap.

Can you talk about your work with local communities and the role that they play in promoting sustainability and renewable energy?

When we formed GreenID in 2011, I was surprised to not find any evidence of public participation in the government’s power planning process. Our main goal is to educate and engage local people in energy discussion and provide evidence for decision makers. We also work with local communities to help them develop renewable energy plans. We provide very small seed funding at first just to inspire them to take ownership. Last year, we set up a mini-grid solar solution that will encourage the government to give grants to local communities to adopt this model and scale up nationwide. This is better than only expanding the grid. When we work with local communities, we don’t just talk about the issue of power, but also how it can help them generate income and build capacity.

In general, we have found that awareness about the environment has increased among the public and at the local level. People take action when they see that development has affected their lives. We are seeing more protests and complaints made by local people to the government and to the media on environmental issues. The people always play the central role in any change. When things happen, it affects their lives directly, so they stand up and raise their voice. The success we have in transitioning to renewable energy can send a message to the world that, as an emerging economy, we have a lot of challenges, but we can succeed.

The views and opinions expressed here are those of the interviewee and not those of The Asia Foundation or its funders.

Related locations: Vietnam
Related programs: Environmental Resilience

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InAsia is a weekly in-depth, in-country resource for readers who want to stay abreast of significant events and issues shaping Asia\’s development, hosted by The Asia Foundation. Drawing on the first-hand insight of over 70 renowned experts in over 20 countries, InAsia delivers concentrated analysis on issues affecting each region of Asia, as well as Foundation-produced reports and polls.

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