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Whose environment is it?
By Nguyen Khac Giang
Sunday,  Feb 9, 2020,17:00 (GMT+7)

Whose environment is it?

By Nguyen Khac Giang

Growing trees or consolidating dykes is not enough to minimize the impact of climate change. A long-term issue needs long-term solutions, including a comprehensive change in policy priority, business activities and personal lifestyles – PHOTO: THANH HOA

To local communities, climate change is still a distant issue if compared with economic growth

A person who returns to Hanoi after some time would easily recognize the rapid change in the capital. After just a few months, high-rise buildings have mushroomed, roads have been expanded and many commercial centers have been opened. The capital is a huge building site with non-stop construction activities. If development is measured with economic expansion, those are optimistic signs.

However, not everything is rosy if the quality of life is the priority. The blue sky seen through the window of the airplane before landing at Noi Bai International Airport was replaced with thick smog covering the capital on the final days of the year. The streets are getting more crowded, and traffic during rush hours in many places is hardly possible. Hanoi is becoming a city where the living space is slowly dying.

This reality, however, is not easily recognized by people who struggle all year round for survival there. Like the story of the boiled frog that makes no responses, people would not pay attention to gradual changes over a long time. They would let it pass when the road today is getting a little bit more crowded or the air is becoming a tad more polluted as long as life is still “all right.” However, if they leave the city for some time, for example a two-week vacation in Danang, they would realize how the living environment in the capital degrades.

The situation was given a strong warning a long time ago, even before the capital was expanded in 2008. However, over a long time, people have just talked about economic development, with the hope that the environmental issue will be easier to solve when the economic life is getting better. That hope has become an illusion. One cannot cover an open wound with a cloth and expects it to heal.

The story of Hanoi has a similarity to climate change issues in Vietnam. Over the past 10 years plus, Vietnam has always been ranked among the list of countries hardest hit by climate change. The warnings have rapidly become reality. Many localities have become victims of abnormal climate changes, including the record drought in the Mekong Delta and unprecedented downpours in the northern region.

A study in Nature Communications issued at the end of October 2019 says the southern region, including the most populous HCMC, will be submerged in the middle of this century. The study forecasts the risk will increase three times higher than the previous forecasts for the impact of sea level rise. There are many debates around the accuracy of those forecasts, but the difference is only about the time. It must be 2050 or 2100. When we expand debate to small, marginal details, we ignore the main issue: Climate change is real, and we must “do something” to minimize its negative impact.

Naturally, most of those abnormal changes are out of our control. There are issues where Vietnam is the victim of the policy of other countries, such as the rampant hydropower developments in the Mekong River. However, no matter what the reason may be, we must be ready to adapt to the new situation.

Policies on climate change adaptation in Vietnam have been issued since 2008. The issue has gained more attention and has been discussed extensively at policymaking agencies at different levels. However, discussion and some action programs do not mean a policy priority: Climate change is still a distant issue in comparison with economic growth. Despite the pressure for reduction of greenhouse emissions and fine dust pollution, coal-fueled power plants are still the leading source of power generation. According to the Vietnam Electricity Group (EVN), the combined capacity of coal-fueled power plants will account for 42.7% of the total capacity of the power system and 49.3% of the electricity output next year.

It’s unfair to put the responsibility for climate change adaptation on the authorities. With the above thermal power as an example, for EVN, complaints by environmentalists are obviously easier to bear than those from millions of consumers, who are not easily willing to pay higher for cleaner power generation technologies. To many people, climate change adaptation or environmental improvement is the task of the Government and is not much related to their own life. They want a cleaner living space but are not willing to do away with convenient but unsustainable habits like using disposable plastic bags or personal vehicles. It’s impossible to “adapt” to whatsoever with such a mindset.

Growing trees or consolidating dykes is not enough to minimize the impact of climate change. A long-term issue needs long-term solutions, including a comprehensive change in policy priority, business activities and personal lifestyles. The price of a clean environment is not cheap. Renewable energy from wind and solar power is much more costly than thermal power, just like travel by public transport cannot be as convenient as travel by motorbike or cars. 

The issue is more complicated when Vietnam’s contribution to the global greenhouse emissions is insignificant. If big countries, specifically the United States and China, do not have radical changes in energy consumption, the environment of small countries like Vietnam will definitely get worse despite their tremendous efforts. Agreements for fighting global climate change are in limbo because the United States has refused concession. To many parties, this is not an issue of economic interest but fairness: Why do developing countries have to bear the big cost for greenhouse emission reduction while developed countries, who benefit from the period of fossil fuel boom, evade responsibility?

Nevertheless, life is not perfect. Though equality is a logical claim, we have only a world to live in and we have to act regardless of the attitude of people around. Efforts to improve the global environment sound dogmatic and pompous, but practical actions to fight climate change will first improve the life of the community around. Reducing greenhouse emissions, especially from heavy industries or coal-fueled power plants, will directly help improve the air. Growing trees does not only expand the natural “green lung” but also renders a city softer and more graceful. Using bicycles or walking will make us healthier. Improving the living environment and adapting to climate change, therefore, serves one’s own interest rather than someone else’s.

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