By Goldman Environmental Foundation
Hanoi, Vietnam, April 23, 2018
Khanh Nguy Thi used scientific research and engaged Vietnamese state agencies to advocate for sustainable long-term energy projections in Vietnam. Highlighting the cost and environmental impacts of coal power, she partnered with state officials to reduce coal dependency and move toward a greener energy future.
The proven dangers of coal
As its economy booms, Vietnam’s electricity needs have been growing at roughly 12% per year for the past decade. Vietnam is one of four Asian nations that lead the world in new coal plant construction. After exploiting most of its hydropower potential, in 2011 the Vietnamese government turned to coal and nuclear to meet its future energy needs. A large portion of the coal burned in Vietnam is imported, increasing the country’s reliance on expensive imports. As the dirtiest form of electricity generation, coal is responsible for 40% of global greenhouse gas emissions and is a major source of air and water pollution.
In 2011, the Vietnamese government published its 2011-2020 Power Development Plan, which outlined the country’s future energy needs and called for 75,000 megawatts of coal-fired power by 2030. A 2015 Harvard University study concluded that about 20,000 citizens per year would die prematurely as a result of air pollution if all proposed coal plants were built in Vietnam.
A methodical scientist and humble consensus builder
Khanh Nguy Thi, 41, was born into a rural family in Bac Am, a village in northern Vietnam. Growing up near a coal plant, she experienced firsthand the pollution and dust from coal operations and witnessed many people in her community develop cancer. Nguy Thi studied history, French, and diplomacy and had planned on becoming a diplomat. However, she was always passionate about the environment and, after graduating from college, began working on water conservation issues and community development for a small Vietnamese nonprofit organization.
In 2011, Nguy Thi founded the Green Innovation and Development Centre (GreenID) in order to promote sustainable energy development in Vietnam, as well as good water and air governance and green development. She also established the Vietnam Sustainable Energy Alliance, a network of 11 Vietnamese and international environmental and social organizations that collaborate on regional energy issues. She is deeply focused on engaging with experts and decisionmakers on renewable energy and energy efficiency in order to reduce dependence on fossil fuels and coal power.
Collaborating with state agencies for a sustainable energy future
Vietnam’s Power Development Plan predicted a dramatic increase in energy demands based on steep economic growth. Nguy Thi’s research suggested more modest energy needs and economic growth projections. Additionally, she was concerned about the plan’s heavy reliance on coal and the long-term energy security and climate implications for Vietnam.
Nguy Thi learned everything she could about coal and climate change, and worked with colleagues and officials to develop an alternate, more sustainable plan. In 2013, she collaborated with energy experts and produced a study on the opportunity to reduce the coal share of the power supply mix in favor of sustainable energy sources. The study detailed how expensive and risky coal was as a primary source of electric power, and proposed alternatives. Around the same time, several coal-related environmental disasters in Vietnam highlighted coal’s dangers and pushed the discussion about Vietnam’s energy future into the public domain. Nguy Thi organized training and communication activities in eight communities affected by the disasters. She worked with the media to publish evidence-based articles about coal and its impacts, and sat on several panels about air pollution.
The extensive media coverage and widespread public debate about coal allowed Nguy Thi and GreenID to collaborate with the Vietnamese government on a revised energy development plan. In January 2016, the government announced that it intended to review development plans for all new coal plants and affirmed Vietnam’s commitment to responsibly implement international commitments for reducing greenhouse gases.
Nguy Thi’s research and collaboration on a more environmentally sustainable national energy plan supported the Vietnamese government’s March 2016 announcement of its revised Power Development Plan. The revised plan significantly reduced the number of coal plants in the pipeline and incorporated Nguy Thi’s recommendation to increase renewable energy—such as wind, solar, and biomass—to 21% of the total energy plan by 2030. With these developments, Nguy Thi has helped guide Vietnam on a path toward energy independence. She is committed to working with her peers and the government to support Vietnam’s transition to renewable and sustainable energy solutions.
(See also: First Vietnamese honored with world’s top environment prize. She has helped reduce 115 million tons of carbon dioxide emissions in Vietnam every year.)