Regarding industrialization, economic growth and liberalization, I once heard Vietnam described as “China on steroids”. In terms of the environment, that statement conjures up nightmarish scenarios. Sure, Vietnam, like China, may be talking the talk and even sometimes walking the walk in terms of “green growth strategies”, but what have been the actual results?

Objectives from Vietnam’s official National Green Growth Strategy:

The period 2011-2020: Reduce the intensity of greenhouse gas emissions by 8-10% as compared to the 2010 level; reduce energy consumption per unit of GDP by 1-1.5% per year. Reduce greenhouse gas emissions from energy activities by 10% to 20% compared to the business as usual case. This commitment includes a voluntary reduction of approximately 10%, and an additional 10% reduction with additional international support.

Solar panels at the Intel plant in Ho Chi Minh City. Pic: Intel Free Press

If Vietnam is anything like China, green growth is accompanied  – and eclipsed – by even more pollution, climate forcing and industrial growth. So I’d be surprised if things are moving in the above-described direction.

On the positive spin side, Vietnam is also home to a massive billion-dollar Intel plant, which reportedly operates under environmental standards far stricter than required under Vietnamese law. These standards help Western multinationals and Vietnamese suppliers save energy while offsetting CO2, according to several large companies operating in Vietnam.

From the New York Times:

Intel, for example, has reduced its global energy bill by $111 million since 2008 as a result of $59 million worth of sustainability investments in 1,500 projects worldwide, Ms. Boger [Intel’s plant manager] said. The projects have offset carbon dioxide emissions equivalent to the amount produced by 126,000 American households per year, she added, and Intel’s $1.1 million solar array at the Vietnam facility offsets each day an amount of carbon dioxide equivalent to that emitted by about 500 of Vietnam’s motorbikes.

But if environmental standards are going to be largely dictated by the private sector, that doesn’t say much for the enforcement of Vietnam’s own environmental policies, nor does the highly informal and therefore dangerous nature of some of its growth industries, for example e-waste.

We should keep in mind that most of Vietnam’s “recycling”, like in much of the developing world, is rudimentary. This means that it isn’t carried out by established organizations, whether governmental or private, that collect reusable waste. It is rather done by poor individuals, who thereby risk their health and wellbeing by dealing with potentially toxic materials in unregulated circumstances. For example, e-waste in Vietnam has increased massively in recent years.

Scrap metal recycling in Vietnam. Pic: Jeannie Zakharov (Flickr CC)

From Vietnam Net:

According to the Science & Environment Institute, belonging to the Hanoi University of Technology, e-waste accounted for 1,630 tons in 2005, and since 2010 the figure has been 61,000-113,000 tons per annum.

Also according to VITTEP, more than 92 percent of the units that collect, carry and store e-waste do not have licenses. Of these, 97 percent are private run establishments with tiny operation scale, which do not meet the environment requirements.

While e-waste collection centers do exist in Vietnam, some 70-85% of people sell their e-waste to unregulated scrap iron dealers instead.

In other news, Vietnam recently came to an arrangement in which the World Bank will buy carbon credit from small Vietnamese hydroelectricity plants. Hopefully these dams won’t choke off any important tributaries, placing poor villagers in peril. In the past Vietnam has put pressure on neighboring Laos to be cautious when developing the Mekong dam project.

See also:

Vietnam combating environmental pollution triggered by land abuses