The prosecution of five prominent Vietnamese environmentalists on tax charges many believe to be trumped-up has led to questions about just how committed the country's communist government is to achieving net-zero carbon emissions by 2050.
Rights groups have argued that the European Union and other international donors should pull back on a $15 billion (€14 billion) funding commitment to assist in Vietnam's green transition until Hanoi releases the jailed environmentalists and improves its woeful human rights record.
Hoang Thi Minh Hong, a former CEO of the environmental NGO Change, was detained by police along with her husband on May 31 after what appear to be spurious accusations of tax evasion.
Four other prominent environmental activists — Mai Phan Loi, Dang Dinh Bach, Bach Hung Duong, and Nguy Thi Khanh — have been jailed in similar circumstances over the past two years.
Mixed record on the environment
Dang Dinh Bach, who was handed a five-year prison sentence for tax evasion, has said he will go on hunger strike "to the death" from June 9 for his immediate and unconditional release.
In 2021, at the COP26 climate change conference in Glasgow, Vietnamese Prime Minister Pham Minh Chinh pledged that his country would reach net-zero carbon emissions by 2050.
But the government's record is a mixed bag. Vietnam still gets more than 50% of its energy from coal, according to government data, and experts say the country has been too slow to reform its energy pricing infrastructure, a prerequisite for a sustainable green transition.
Rights campaigners say environmentalists are being locked up because they draw attention to the lack of progress being made by the communist government.
On the other hand, the share of Vietnam's electricity generated by solar increased from almost zero in 2017 to nearly 11% in 2021. Last year, the The Economist dubbed Vietnam "a bright spot on an otherwise soot-black map" for climate change action in Southeast Asia.
An attack on truth tellers?
Ben Swanton, a co-director of The 88 Project that collects data on human rights in Vietnam, said there was "clear evidence" that the cases against the five environmentalists were "politically-driven and designed to criminalize climate activism using false charges of tax evasion."
It's partly a matter of power, he added, explaining that the environmentalists had transformed their individual nonprofit groups into powerful advocacy coalitions, which brought them into conflict with the one-party government. "These activists figured out a way to organize within the system to shape state policy. That was a bridge too far for the Communist Party," he said.
Many of those jailed in recent years were part of the Vietnam Sustainable Energy Alliance, an advocacy coalition of several NGOs that was forced to cease operating last year.
In the past, the Communist Party has broken up any attempt by activists to form centralized and hierarchical-structured alliances of campaigners. Bloc 8406 and the Brotherhood for Democracy, two pro-democracy alliances, were crushed within months of their creation. The ruling party prefers activists to remain atomized and thus less threatening.
Green transition on hold?
The World Bank noted in a lengthy report last year that Vietnam "is one of the most vulnerable countries in the world to climate change." Much of its territory is at threat from rising sea levels, while the country depends on the flow of adequate water levels from the Mekong River.
The Mekong Delta, Vietnam's rice basket, is particularly threatened by climate change. Vietnam recorded its highest-ever temperature, of over 44 degrees Celsius (111.2 degrees Fahrenheit), in May.
Without proper adaptation, the World Bank estimates that climate change could cost the country about 15% of GDP a year by 2050 and could plunge up to 1 million people into extreme poverty by 2030.
Gvantsa Gverdtsiteli, of Roskilde University in Denmark, said it's difficult to know whether the Communist Party has a "genuine desire" to achieve a climate-neutral economy because of the nature of Vietnam's political system. The party's authoritarian impulse is to remain in power by any means necessary, she said.
"There is a desire to pursue climate-friendly policies, or at least to demonstrate a willingness to do so," she explained, adding that the party is not a monolith and there are various interest groups within it.
"What we can observe with greater certainty is that the [Communist Party] is increasingly interested in portraying itself as more environmentally conscious," Gverdtsiteli said.
Catch-22 of energy transition
Political commitment isn't the only concern. Vietnam's transition to renewable energy is expected to cost hundreds of billions of dollars between now and 2050. The United Nations Development Program has said about $60 billion (€55.7 billion) will be needed each year until that end date — about 16% of Vietnam's annual GDP.
Nguyen Khac Giang, an analyst at the Victoria University of Wellington in New Zealand, said there was a "genuine concern" that energy security might be compromised if the government abandons coal-fired electricity too early without having reliable alternatives in place.
It's something of a catch-22 most countries face, he said. In order to accumulate the finances needed to pay for the green transition, the economy needs to continue growing and that means energy production must keep up with demand.
But if that demand can only be met by nonrenewable energy sources, such as coal, it exacerbates environmental problems. However, abandoning nonrenewables too soon could cause the economy to splutter, risking the entire green transition process, he said.
Pressure from the West
In December, the European Union, as well as the United Kingdom and the United States, committed to providing $15.5 billion of funding through the Just Energy Transition Partnership to help Vietnam reduce its carbon footprint.
Human rights groups have written to Brussels demanding that it hold off on providing this money until the Vietnamese government stops jailing environmentalists and improves its human rights record.
They should tell Hanoi "in no uncertain terms that those financial resources will not be made available until the unconditional release of the four environmentalists behind bars," Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director of Human Rights Watch, told DW.
The human rights lobbying group has also called on the EU to use its regular bilateral dialogue session with Vietnam, which began on June 9, to demand immediate change from Hanoi.
The Vietnamese government had committed itself to numerous reforms when signing a free-trade agreement with the EU in 2020. Many activists and campaigners say the human rights situation has actually worsened since that deal went into effect.
"The EU should get serious about pressing the Vietnamese government to convert rights pledges into genuine reform," Robertson said in a statement. "It's not much of a rights dialogue if Vietnam officials are just going through the motions, expressing platitudes and waiting for the meeting to end."
Edited by: Srinivas Mazumdaru