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Vietnamese campaign warns of nightmarish coal future

The Mekong Eye

A future built on coal is a dark and dystopian nightmare, according to a new anti-coal campaign launched by environmental groups in Vietnam.

The new photo campaign is called “I Can’t” and it features popular Vietnamese actors, musicians and artists wearing gas masks, performing before a devastating backdrop of smog, societal breakdown and climate change devastation.

Actress Diem My

Singer Bich Ngoc – Vietnam Idol 2015 Runner-up: image of a nightingale not only losing her beautiful voice, but also facing death from pollution and climate change.


The campaign, sponsored by Vietnam’s chapter of the global climate change NGO and the Center of Hands-on Actions and Networking for Growth and Environment (CHANGE), features eight popular Vietnamese artists including singers Trong Hieu, Bich Ngoc and Hoang Quyen and actress Diem My. Each is shown performing in front of a nightmarish backdrop, meant as a warning to Vietnam that a future relying on coal is a stark one indeed.

According to a Harvard University report, 4300 Vietnamese die prematurely every year due to the impacts of pollution from coal power plants. And’s press release for the campaign claims that “the government is planning to build a massive 55 Gigawatts of new coal by 2030.”

Vietnam leads the Mekong region in reliance on coal and is the world’s third largest builder of coal power generators. In 2011, the percentage of the country’s power produced from coal was about 19%, but that is expected to rise to 48% in 2020 and 52% in 2030. Reports claim that at least 50 coal-fired power plants are in planning stages, to be added to the 19 already in operation. However, the government announced in January that they were halting the development of new coal plants, but specifics have not been released.

Songwriter Tien Tien: image of a young artist holding a broken guitar, feeling hopeless as she cannot continue her dream.

Burning coal is believed to be a key cause of climate change, as it’s estimated to account for 1/3 of the world’s carbon dioxide emissions. Recently, Vietnam’s Mekong Delta has suffered severe drought, partly due to climate change impacts from coal plants and other sources, as well as the effects of upstream dam development. The World Bank warned that Vietnam is, “ground zero for some of the most difficult [climate change] adaptation, planning challenges that any country in the world has.” China, who has been under fire for the potentially drought worsening impacts of its upstream dams, seems to blame the entirety of the recent drought crisis on climate change.


Artist Thanh Bui – principal of SOUL Music and Performing Arts Academy: image of a teacher sitting beside his broken piano, unable to teach while his students also struggle to learn in their gas masks.

At the same time as millions of farmers and fisherfolk are impacted by changes in the Mekong Delta, air quality in the cities occasionally reaches hazardous levels. Most of this is thought to be caused by traffic, but burning coal emits dangerous pollutants that can spread for hundreds of kilometres. The pollution not only contains climate change inducing emissions, but also solid particles, mercury and arsenic, which can potentially cause lung cancer and nerve and respiratory conditions. The Harvard study that estimates coals kills 4300 Vietnamese per year, predicts that number could rise to 25,000 deaths annually. Globally, the study estimates that up to 800,000 people die prematurely every year due to coal power related impacts.

Singer Trong Hieu – Vietnam Idol 2015 Winner: image of a singer longing to free his voice from the gas mask and escape from the destroyed world.

Meanwhile, some Vietnamese citizens are protesting this “coal future.” In 2015, hundreds of demonstrators blocked a main highway demanding action after dust from the brand new 1,244-MW Vinh Tan 2 power plant covered houses and villages.

Public protest in Vietnam is rare and risky, so instead the “I Can’t” campaign organizers have harnessed artistic protest. The artists themselves hope that the younger, ‘social media generation’ will be inspired by seeing their stars make a statement against coal. “I devote myself to inspiring my students and pointing them in the right direction in life.” singing coach Thanh Bui said in the press release about the campaign. “I want them to have a clean safe environment so that they can grow and shine while pursuing their dreams. However, their dreams, life and future are seriously threatened by the worsened air pollution caused by coal.”

With this backdrop, Vietnam is eyeing nuclear, hydropower and wind as possible alternative energy sources. Each has its costs and benefits, but many renewable energy experts believe the long-term answers for fast-growing Vietnam involve wind, biomass, water currents and solar – as well as steps to improve energy efficiency. Vietnam recently announced some adjustments to its national electricity development plan, but detailed changes are not yet clear.

Many in the coal industry argue that “clean coal” technology is improving coal’s chances at being part of a sustainable energy solution. But much of the scientific community disputes these claims. In fact, a new report warns that almost $1 trillion of global investment in new coal-fired power plants could be wasted as concerns about climate change and air pollution make them too risky to operate.

The fast growing Mekong region needs energy. So for the foreseeable future, it looks like coal is on the rise in countries across the region, with impacts to be felt by communities, the environment and the world at-large. But in Vietnam, the stars have momentarily aligned for this innovative and chilling anti-coal campaign.

Dancer Do Hai Anh – So You Think You Can Dance 2015 Winner: image of a swan with broken wings devastated when realizing that her dancing dream has ended because of pollution and climate change.


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