Vietnam ranks among the 10 countries with the world’s worst air pollution. Figures indicate the main factors contributing to the severity of the problem are traffic emissions, industrial production, and construction. Vietnam relies heavily on coal to generate much of the country’s power and an additional 26 coal power plants are planned to be constructed after 2020. These factors are causing Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City to be cloaked by a dangerously thick cloud of smog, choking locals and posing serious health risks.
Exposure to chronic air pollution can first cause irritation to the eyes and throat before leading to more serious illnesses such as asthma, cancer, and chronic lung diseases. The World Health Organization (WHO) reportedly states that 6/10 diseases with high morality rates in Vietnam are related to air pollution. Dangerous levels of fine particulate matter measuring 2.5 micrometers in diameter (PM 2.5) are found to be five times the acceptable level in Hanoi and twice the recommended level in Ho Chi Minh City. These tiny particles can burrow deep into the lungs and cause a range of severe health problems.
In an effort to stray from power generated by environmentally harmful coal, locals have been investing in rooftop solar panels in increasing numbers. Solar energy saves 50% or more on electricity costs and there is often a surplus of energy, in which case homeowners can earn credit on electricity bills. It is an effective solution and the installation costs are reasonable compared with the long-term environmental and financial benefits of abandoning coal-generated power. The government is also accelerating the development of solar power plants to meet increasing domestic demand for power; solar power currently accounts for 0.01% of total power generated in Vietnam, but the government plans to increase it to 20% by 2050.
However, the bulk of the issue remains with the millions of cars and motorbikes crowding the narrow streets of Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City. Traffic emissions in Vietnam account for up to 85% of total carbon monoxide emissions. Subway construction is well underway in both cities as the government struggles to meet the demand for public transportation. Old buses spurt black smoke as they careen through the streets, prompting officials to call for replacing them with new ones that use cleaner fuel. There has also been a push to enforce emission standards among cars and motorbikes; however, certification for emission standards is expensive and this has led to fake certifications and bribes given in exchange for an emissions certificate.
In 2017, the majority of Hanoi People’s Council voted to implement a motorcycle ban by 2030. Motorbikes will be banned in downtown areas and limited in districts with sufficient public transport.
As higher populations flock to urban centers, cities struggle to meet the demand for safe and effective public transportation while air quality deteriorates. The first subway line in Hanoi is expected to open later this year while the first Ho Chi Minh City line won’t open until 2020; it will be decades before public transport can successfully alleviate congestion and mitigate emissions.
The emerging demand for solar power will hopefully prompt nationwide interest in renewable energy sources, but unless the proposed coal plants are cut and public transport removes a high number of motorbikes and cars off the streets, Vietnam’s air pollution problem will continue to get worse.