Vietnam is struggling with alarming air pollution. Its two biggest cities, Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City, are now among the top 15 polluted cities in Southeast Asia.
Fine particulate matter (PM2.5) is the most concerning air pollutant in Vietnam. In 2019, Hanoi had only eight days with PM2.5 lower than the national standard of 50 micrograms per cubic meter (µg/m3). The air quality in Ho Chi Minh City was not much better, with only 36 days below the standard. For the remaining days of the year, over ten million people in these cities were exposed to heavily polluted air.
Finer particles are particularly harmful to human health as they can penetrate deep into the lungs and cardiovascular system, causing diseases including stroke, heart disease, lung cancer, chronic obstructive pulmonary diseases and respiratory infections. Up to 60,000 deaths in Vietnam in 2016 were related to air pollution. On average, air quality being below the World Health Organization’s standard reduces life expectancy by one year and costs the country about 5 per cent of GDP per year.
Among the main causes of this pollution is transportation. Vietnam now has 3.6 million automobiles and 58 million motorbikes, mostly concentrated in big cities. Many of them are old vehicles, with limited emission control technology. They cause daily traffic jams and emit a large amount of air pollutants. There are many old buses and motorbikes with visibly black exhaust smoke in the country.
Vietnam’s transportation issues are exacerbated by poor urban planning. Mushrooming high-rise buildings in city centers, each with thousands of inhabitants, create enormous pressure on the already overloaded road infrastructure. No mass transit systems exist except for the yet-to-be-convenient bus fleet. Open and green space is considered luxurious in Vietnam’s big cities.
Another problem is dust from commercial and residential construction sites. Thousands of construction sites filled with trucks that are heavily loaded with sand and cement create perpetual dust storms. Old industrial sites inside cities and air polluting facilities such as coal power plants and cement and steel manufacturers worsen air pollution. Solid biomass cooking stoves used by hundreds of thousands of city dwellers as well as the burning of rice fields after harvest in peri-urban areas of Hanoi contribute significantly to air pollution, particularly in the dry season from October to February.
Environmental authorities have identified short-term solutions. These include stricter regulations on new vehicle emission standards, better traffic control, enforcement of dust management measures for construction sites and transporting trucks, enhanced monitoring of industrial emissions and bans on charcoal stove use in cities. While these measures could help partially address Vietnam’s pollution, long-term national policies are needed.
First, improving and reinforcing urban planning would mitigate air pollution considerably. Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City have plenty of highly occupied high-rise buildings and now need more open and green space. Densely populated facilities such as government offices, universities and hospitals could be relocated to be outside cities. Relocating old industrial sites such as the Rang Dong Light Bulb Factory would reduce hazardous air pollutants. The completion of mass transit systems is also urgently needed, followed by the development of new systems. Green building codes and feed-in tariffs could promote the development of energy efficient and solar-powered buildings.
Second, policies promoting the use of greener vehicles could reduce air pollution. Phasing out obsolete and polluting vehicles could be encouraged by providing subsidies for trading in old cars, paid for by higher taxes on new vehicles. This would help address distributional effect concerns, as owners of old vehicles tend to be from lower-income households. The government could also issue enabling policies to promote electric vehicles (EVs), such as allowing only EVs in downtown areas and an income tax reduction for EV manufacturers to make them more affordable.
Third, pollutant pricing would be appropriate given the polluter pays principle. The environmental protection tax regulation could be revised to better target polluting fuels such as diesel and coal. Carbon pricing would reduce the consumption and production of carbon-based products and promote a low-carbon economy. This would alleviate air pollution and mitigate climate change, which is another threat to Vietnam’s economic and social security.
Fourth, a smooth and efficient transition to a renewable electricity system would help mitigate air pollution and climate change. Enabling policies such as feed-in tariffs and reverse auctions for solar and wind power would maintain the momentum of a recent boom in solar power that made Vietnam the top country in Southeast Asia for solar power installation. Vietnam could set more ambitious targets for renewable energy, given its high potential for solar, wind and off-river pumped hydropower.
Last, fossil fuel subsidy reform could reduce the use of the dirty fuel and free up the current annual fossil subsidy of US$ 612 million or 0.3 percent of Vietnam’s GDP for other welfare activities such as health, education and environmental protection.
It is the perfect time to prioritize these potential measures by revising the Law on Environmental Protection, which is planned to be approved by the National Assembly at the end of 2020. Vietnam has the capacity to turn around its pollution problem through careful regulation.
Dr Thang Nam Do is a Research Fellow with the Zero-Carbon Energy for the Asia-Pacific Grand Challenge Program of the ANU Energy Change Institute and the Crawford School of Public Policy, The Australian National University. This article was originally published over at East Asia Forum here.