How Vietnam Can Ensure Economic Growth and Create Green Cities

How can Vietnamese cities avoid the environmental pitfalls of rapid urbanisation? Adam Ward proposes solution-driven policies for key areas.

Vietnam boasts one of Southeast Asia’s fastest growing economies and one of the most rapid rates of urbanisation in the region. The breakneck expansion of cities comes with a set of unique challenges – but also with exciting new opportunities to ensure growth that is inclusive, sustainable and, above all, green.

Creating green, smart cities will allow Vietnam to ensure economic growth and sidestep the environmental pitfalls of rapid urbanisation seen elsewhere. The Global Green Growth Institute (GGGI) is working with the Vietnamese government to help make this vision a reality. Here is how.

What is a Green City?

For GGGI, green cities combine the features depicted in the figure below.

green cities in Vietnam

© Global Green Growth Institute 2019

Essentially, a green city is one that minimizes resource use and pollution and uses the latest technology to constantly strive to be the best place to live, both for the citizens and the environment.

The Vietnamese government has made both green cities and smart cities a top priority in its development plans. It has launched the urban green growth development plan, urban green growth indicators (with GGGI’s support) and a smart city strategy. Over 30 cities have made steps to become green cities, including Hanoi, Ho Chi Minh City, and Danang.

Solution-driven Policies

There are a few key areas that Vietnam should focus on to develop its green cities, all within reach.

First is energy. Green cities offer solutions to how cities are powered. For example, smart meters and grids allow households to monitor their consumption of electricity and ensure appliances are switched off when not needed – like turning off your home air conditioner when you leave the house. Also, renewable energy generated via rooftop solar panels can be sold back to the grid or drawn down for self-consumption. To address the financing gap for these types of projects, GGGI is currently developing a solar financing facility to be launched later this year to see rapid scale-up of solar rooftop across Vietnam.

Ho Chi Minh City is one of Vietnam’s leading cities in terms of economic development, but also in green growth. By the end of 2018, 906 households, offices and enterprises had installed rooftop solar power, increasing total installed capacity by nearly 52 times compared to five years ago. Though small overall, this is a great step in the right direction as solar rooftop is still at very early stages of development in Vietnam due to a lack of supporting policies but has huge potential.

Vietnamese cities can also look to smart systems for lighting. One example is solar, energy-efficient LED street lighting that adjusts the level of lighting remotely and automatically notifies maintenance needs.

It is crucial for the main grid to be decarbonised. Vietnam needs to continue the successes we have seen recently in solar development with over 4 GW being installed in two years, while scaling-up wind power and a strengthening of the grid to dispatch power to where it is needed most – in the cities. The cost of renewables continues to fall and by embracing this energy revolution, cities can be powered cleanly and more efficiently while creating green jobs and boosting economic growth.

Second is transport. Intelligent transport systems that manage traffic flows based on volume and provide live information on public transport can reduce journey times while enhancing safety and encourage increased use of public transport, all while reducing harmful emissions.

Hanoi is already planning to build up a smart traffic management system like this. A bus app has been launched for users to find the best route, and buses are equipped with location GPS and cameras to provide information back to the centre on traffic and timing of buses being displayed at bus stops. This is a great first step, but cities across the country should also prioritise electric mobility to cut pollution and improve air quality. It is great to see that VinFast, together with Siemens, will be producing electric buses in Vietnam, which will support this necessary transport evolution.

Third is waste. Green waste management promotes recycling, avoids the congested collection of waste generated domestically, reduces human labour and time spent sorting recycling and only collecting waste when needed, resulting in a healthier environment.

After waste has been recycled and composted (in the case of organic matter), the remaining waste can be used to generate electricity. GGGI is working on this “waste as a resource” approach in Bac Ninh partnering with the local government as well as the government of Finland and the developer, Thang Long, to support the launching of a US$60 million, 10 MW waste-to-energy plant that will process up to 500 tons of waste a day using the latest Finnish technology. Crucial to any waste management system is household separation of waste – an area in which Vietnam lags behind and therefore a key priority for the future.

Fourth is air quality. Among the many environmental challenges facing cities, air quality is especially difficult to manage. Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City regularly exceed the safe limit for air pollution as defined by the World Health Organization (WHO), indeed Hanoi was ranked second worst for air quality in South East Asia in 2018. This has been attributed to five main factors, including coal power, heavy industry (such as cement factories), road transportation, construction and the open burning of agricultural and municipal waste.

The negative impacts of air pollution include the elevated risk of cardiovascular problems like heart disease, stroke and acute asthma. Studies have shown that life-long exposure to air pollution can shave years from life expectancy, with children and the elderly being the most vulnerable.

The development of more advanced sensors, analytical tools, and communication campaigns are allowing cities to make their citizens more aware of the environment, engage residents in reducing pollution, and address the health outcomes of poor air quality. By distributing a data-collection network throughout a city, cities can develop smarter, more timely responses to pollution. By rolling out clean public transportation, tackling heavy industry and prioritising renewable energy, air quality can be improved. This will greatly impact the lives of citizens, but also reduce pressure on health services, and decrease lost economic output due to poor air quality.

Public-Private Partnerships are Key

To make green smart cities a reality, GGGI will continue to work with the Vietnamese government, from national to city level, to create an effective enabling environment through clear policies as well as fostering partnerships with tech and green infrastructure companies. By doing so, we will see Vietnam’s cities at the heart of building Vietnam’s green economy and achieving the SDGs and the goals of the Paris Agreement.

We are currently facing a crucial juncture in Vietnam’s impressive development trajectory – let’s work together to make sure that growth in cities is green and smart!

Adam Ward

Country Representative at Global Green Growth Institute, Viet Nam
Adam Ward is the Country Representative for GGGI in Viet Nam, where he works closely with the government and stakeholders to promote green growth in the fast-developing country. Adam also used to oversee the Cambodia program and arrived in Viet Nam in 2015 after a three-year posting as GGGI’s Deputy Country Representative and Acting Country Representative in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. He holds a BSc in Economics and Geography from Trinity College Dublin and an MSc in Environmental and Resource Economics from University College London.
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