In Glasgow on November 1st, 2021, Prime Minister Pham Minh Chinh made history: Vietnam will achieve net-zero greenhouse gases emissions by 2050. Let us discuss the implications of this declaration, made with a commitment to stop building new coal-fired power plants and reduce methane emissions. We will examine first the relevance for Vietnam of the intergovernmental Glasgow Climate Pact, before discussing the implications of critical declarations, statements and other pledges taken at the COP26 conference.
The COP26 in Glasgow confirmed the relevance of the 1.5 degree Celsius global warming objective. It may seem discouraging to strive for the 1.5-degree objective when Earth has already warmed by 1.1 degrees, increasing by 0.2 degrees every ten years. However, the 1.5-degree goal should be understood as a concept at the interface between science and policy. Journalists have called 1.5 a totem, because humans assemble around it for collective ceremonies. Politicians have called 1.5 an anchor, as it guards us under unknowable risks and should not be let slip.
Social scientists would use the technical term boundary object: information used in different ways by different communities for collaborative work through scales (Star & Griesemer, 1989). The meaning of “global warming” refers only to the physical variable, the average increase in surface temperature since the pre-industrial era. It also refers to a political variable, a measure of effort that policymakers consent to. To keep the option to stay below 1.5 degrees alive means that negotiators agree that the problem is not only significant but urgent.
Considering the urgency, countries agreed in Article 28 of the Glasgow Climate Pact, which is the main political text produced by the conference, to submit increased ambitions by the time of the next conference in 2022, instead of waiting for 2025. This is a political move towards the about 40 countries which did not submit their updated Nationally Determined Commitment in time, and towards those who did but without increasing their level of ambitions.
Vietnam already submitted an updated Nationally Determined Commitment in July 2020. It will be difficult for MONRE to perform a whole NDC exercise for next year while at the same time focusing on improving the national GHG monitoring and reporting systems. Yet the Paris Agreement is built on the mutual trust that Nations will say what they are doing – a more accessible and more realistic basis than expecting Nations to do what they are saying. Vietnam has spectacular progress in the renewable energy sector that merit showcasing. And its commitments at COP26 are certainly a significant basis to revise the NDC.
Vietnam adopted the goal to have net-zero emissions by 2050. This is a turning point, a seminal reorientation for a society. It is in tune with the spirit of the times. Many countries – responsible for more than half of the world’s CO2 emissions – have adopted or are adopting a net-zero goal by mid-century. The week before the COP, UAE adopted the net-zero by 2050 goal and Saudi Arabia by 2060. At COP, India announced the net-zero goal by 2070.
Many countries and companies are adopting a net neutrality goal. The next step is to put short-term plans in coherence with stated long-term goals. The 2050 horizon can be an excuse to leave the problem to future management: Greenwashing could be the new climate change denial. This is not the case in Vietnam. Back from Glasgow, the Prime Minister already directed MOIT to enact COP26 commitments in national policy. This implies a substantial revision of the draft Power Development Plan.
- Coal: Vietnam signed the Global coal to clean power transition statement. It commits to achieve a transition away from unabated coal power generation in the 2040s (or as soon as possible after that), and to cease issuance of new permits for unabated coal-fired power generation projects that have not yet reached financial close, cease new construction of unabated coal-fired power generation projects and to end new direct government support for unabated international coal-fired power generation. CO-signatories with Vietnam include South Korea, and the Philippines, Singapore, Indonesia, and Brunei Darussalam in ASEAN. The four largest coal using countries: China, India, United States and Japan, did not sign.
- Methane: Over 100 countries, Vietnam included, signed on the US and EU-led Global Methane Pledge: to cut global Methane emissions by 30 % in 2030 (European Commission & United States of America, 2021). This will have a significant short-term effect against global warming, aiming to save about 0.2 degrees by 2050. The world can gain ten years in the climate change fight by controlling methane emissions. The 30 % goal is global, not national. The commitment is only voluntary actions and increased transparency. In addition to improving MONRE’s national greenhouse gases monitoring and verification system, Vietnam committed to achieving all feasible methane emissions reductions from the energy sector (coal mines, the oil and gas production, transport and processing) and the waste sector (landfills). It also committed to seeking the reduction of agricultural emissions – the largest source in the country – through technology innovation, incentives and partnerships with farmers.
- Cars: Vietnam did not sign the COP26 declaration committing to sell only zero-emissions cars and vans by 2040 and 2035 in leading markets. This political claim was only half successful in Great Britain. Major car manufacturers Ford, Mercedes, Volvo and Mercedes-Benz signed but Renault-Nissan, Toyota and Volkswagen did not. In the absence of unanimity from the industry, the top car-producing countries China, Germany, France, Japan, and the US did not join the declaration.
- Fossil-fuel financing: More than 30 countries and financial institutions are committed to halting all funding for fossil fuel development overseas and diverting the spending to green energy. Signatories include the US, UK, and the European Investment Bank. This coalition could gain momentum fast since it follows the precedent set by the international cooperation against coal financing. Investors should watch out for the impact on US support to Vietnam’s LNG and offshore fossil fuel extraction development program.
- Deforestation. Along with 141 countries at COP26, Vietnam pledged to “Halt and reverse” deforestation by 2030, increase finance for sustainable agriculture, forest management and forest conservation + restoration. This pledge is not a significant policy change, similar agreements made in the past produced few results. Tree-planting is not enough to ensure sustainable forestry: local community management makes or breaks afforestation programs.