|Adam Ward, Country Representative of the Global Green Growth Institute (GGGI) in Vietnam (left) and Kate Bronstein, Research Environmental Engineer from RTI International.
Air pollution is a mixture of small particles and gases – some we can see and some we can’t. Vietnam’s major cities are gravely affected by poor air quality; indeed, Hanoi was ranked second worst for air quality in the Southeast Asian region in 2018 by Air Visual.
Situation in Vietnam
When we talk about air pollution, we are referring to: particulate matter 10 micrometers or less in diameter (PM10), PM2.5, black carbon, nitrogen oxides (NO and NO2), sulphur dioxide (SO2), ozone (O3), and volatile organic carbons (VOCs).
Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City regularly exceed the safe World Health Organization (WHO) limit for air pollution such as PM2.5 and PM10. So, what is causing this poor air? This has been attributed to five main drivers, including coal power, heavy industry (such as cement factories), road transportation, construction and the open burning of agricultural and municipal waste.
Exposure to air pollution is the world’s largest killer, responsible for an estimated 6.4 million deaths per year (or one in nine deaths on average). This ratio is higher than the estimated deaths from malaria and HIV/AIDS combined. Most of these deaths (4.2 million) are related to ambient, or outdoor pollution, versus indoor pollution.
Air pollution disproportionately kills the poor and those most vulnerable – infants and children under 14, the elderly, outdoor workers, and those with existing health conditions (heart disease, coronary artery disease, or congestive heart failure).
Short-term exposure to high concentrations of air pollutants result in health problems that we may be immediately aware of – headaches, coughing, difficulty breathing, and irritation of the eyes, nose and throat. Other impacts we may not realize are occurring include damage to cells in our respiratory system and added stress to the heart and lungs, making them work harder to perform the same functions.
Long-term exposure (months to years) cause permanent health effects, including accelerated aging of the lungs; loss of lung capacity and decreased lung function; development of diseases such as asthma, bronchitis, emphysema, COPD; possibly cancer (depending on the pollutant); and a shortened life span.
Short- or long-term exposure of pregnant women and young children are most concerning. Exposure to air pollution during pregnancy influences fetal development through molecular changes of the fetus, leading to potential miscarriage and changes in metabolism and development, potentially resulting in the delivery of premature and small, low birth-weight children. Being born at less than optimal conditions creates additional challenges and increases a child’s susceptibility of disease, particularly in low-income countries where sanitation and water quality are below standard. Small exposures to young children can result in lifelong disease, disability, premature death, and reduced learning and earning potential.
Actions to improve air quality
Transforming the energy sector is key to tackling poor air quality – Vietnam needs to turn away from coal power and embrace renewable energy and gas power (as an interim solution); GGGI are working to do exactly this through our work on scaling up rooftop solar. Improving energy efficiency of industry as well as buildings will also have large scale benefits – both for air quality and the economy. It has been fantastic to see the increase in solar after the new feed-in-tariff (FiT) was launched – long may this continue and that we see lots of wind power added with the introduction of the new FiT for wind.
Private trips made by scooters and cars are also part of the problem and on the rise in Vietnam; with annual car sales increasing by 38 per cent between 2012 and 2016. What is more alarming is that car ownership still lags other countries in the Southeast Asian region such as Thailand and Malaysia – meaning we have lots more potential car owners.
Therefore, more needs to be done to encourage people to take public transport, how? For example, by completing the metro and then building a network on bus rapid transit (BRT) systems – with dedicated enforced lanes that ferry passengers along much faster than the normal traffic. BRT systems are much cheaper and easier to build than metros and could be scaled up very quickly. This should be coupled with dissuading the purchase of new polluting vehicles – such as through a tax on petrol cars but exclusion for electric cars.
Tackling agricultural and municipal open burning can be done through enabling a network of waste-to-energy plants. GGGI has worked with the private sector on just this; with the waste-to-energy plant having already broken ground in the northern province of Bac Ninh – this will use the latest technology to recycle, reduce and then generate electricity from trash. For generating electricity from agriculture waste, GGGI’s analysis has shown that the biomass feed-in-tariff is currently too low to stimulate demand, so it is great that the government are looking to increase this in 2019, hopefully to the level GGGI has recommended at 9.35 US cents per kWh.
The Vietnamese government has made some good first steps to improving air quality – with several partnerships with development partners on constructing monitoring stations, developing action plans, and building capacity of government officials to tackle this problem. Coupled with the recent developments for renewable energy, this is very promising.
However, this is a silent killer, and the levels seen in Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City are alarming, combined with the forecasts for increased coal power and motor vehicles, more needs to be done to address this poor air quality. We have seen countries like China take the lead on tackling their poor air, but only after it had become a crisis, which is the path Vietnam has gone down.
The good news is that all the solutions are within Vietnam’s grasp; the Southeast Asian country is blessed with huge renewable energy potential, there are large gains to be made in energy efficiency, and metros and BRTs are proven technologies.
All that is required is the full commitment of the government to introduce the necessary policies and continue and scale up support for sustainable energy and public transport.