In a shifting landscape of climate policies in Vietnam—as indicated by the recent arrest of anti-coal activist Nguy Thi Khanh—Japanese and Korean lobbyists are seizing the moment to push gas infrastructure into the country’s energy planning.
“In many ways, the treatment of Ms. Nguy illuminates the Vietnamese government’s conflicted approach to environmental protection and infighting among various ministries,” writes the New York Times. Although the government had previously been tolerant of some measures of criticism resulting from public anger over air pollution and chemical spills, it has also sought to balance that stance against officials who complain it is unfair for Vietnam to be pressured to go green when developed countries have been unmitigated, long-time polluters.
Nguy has pushed Vietnam to make the transition away from coal, and achieved some level of success in 2016 when the country decided to partially remove coal from its next energy plan. Vietnam’s first recipient of the prestigious Goldman Environmental Prize, she said the country must cut coal-fired power by 30,000 megawatts.
“The government met her more than halfway, agreeing to a reduction of 20,000 MW,” writes the Times.
But her arrest for tax evasion—a charge her supporters say is based on trumped up charges—suggests the government’s attitude is shifting. In January, authorities imprisoned three other environmental activists, all of whom had spoken out against the government’s coal policies, writes the Times.
The arrest “is a very strong signal from the Communist Party that they are now willing to go much further to control civil society,” said Trinh Huu Long, Taiwan-based co-director of Legal Initiatives for Vietnam. “And they will not tolerate even slight criticism.”
Japanese and Korean business interests are looking to take advantage of the moment to call for renewed Vietnamese investment in gas infrastructure to replace coal. According to an analysis by InfluenceMap, the foreign interests are pushing gas as a low-carbon solution to meet the climate targets Vietnam adopted at last year’s COP 26 climate summit in Glasgow.
“These foreign players are actively taking advantage of this moment of climate transition to make a place for their own gas industry,” research lead Yuna Chang told Climate Home News.
Climate experts say expanding gas infrastructure would run counter to Vietnam’s climate goals, and the silencing of public input on environmental policy further endangers the country’s decarbonization efforts.
Jake Schmidt, senior strategic director for international climate at the U.S. Natural Resources Defense Council, told the Times he has “zero confidence” now that Vietnam can deliver on the energy transition in light of the crackdown.