Locking up a country’s environmental defenders is not only wrong from a human rights perspective, but will only slow down the massive shift that is needed to avoid the worst impacts for people and nature.
In the lead up to the EU ASEAN Summit in Brussels on December 14, G7 countries have put a $15 billion offer on the table for Vietnam to consider, half public loans, half pledges from the private sector but no needed public grants. The proposed «Just Energy Transition Partnership» (JET-P) is a multi-faceted financing deal being negotiated between the EU, the UK and Vietnam to support its transition away from coal toward renewable energy. While this is a key strategy in mitigating climate change that must be considered, questions should be raised about how a JET-P can be successfully implemented in Vietnam while their environmental defenders are in jail.
Currently serving 21 months in prison on trumped-up tax evasion charges is internationally renowned climate expert and Goldman Environmental Prize winner Ms. Nguy Thi Khanh. Over the last decade, Ms. Khanh worked closely with Vietnam’s government to reduce its coal dependency, raised public awareness about the link between coal plant emissions and air pollution, and conducted research and policy engagement to demonstrate the cost-effectiveness of renewable energy. Her arrest and detention, along with prominent environmental lawyer Đang Đình Bách and others, raises questions about how civil society can feel free to participate in the just energy transition process if they could also face persecution.
There is evidence to suggest that these heavy sentences on ambiguous tax-related charges are a pretext and could be the beginning of a wider trend to halt the innovative work of environmental defenders, making it harder for civil society players to speak out as needed and participate in the process of weaning Vietnam off of coal. A constrained civil society will no doubt make it difficult for Vietnam to succeed in meeting their commitment to net zero emissions by 2050, made at COP 26 last year, and must be considered in the discussions around the pending JETP-P at the upcoming EU ASEAN Summit.
In addition to ensuring civil society freedom and participation, donor and recipient countries contributing to any JET-P must agree to an end to coal plants currently in planning stages and stop all new coal plant construction. Leaders should also be wary of false solutions to energy transitions, including the consideration of the Chan May 4,000MW LNG-to-power plant in Vietnam, which would only slow the country’s clean energy transition. Finally, the financing must not put Vietnam further into debt so that it becomes economically burdened by this process. High-income countries must step up and do their fair share – based on historical responsibility and capability—to support this necessary transition in line with a just 1.5 degree pathway.
Vietnam’s JET-P would follow the $8.5 billion partnership announced with South Africa last year; and the $20 billion partnership with Indonesia announced at the G20 last month—both of which are backed by the German government, in addition to other G7 countries. While each of these could be important contributions to the movement toward the needed energy transition if implemented well, unfortunately neither guarantees a just and equitable transition away from all fossil fuels entirely. Also none of the G7 countries are currently following a just 1,5 degree pathway.
Vietnam is a significant player within ASEAN, has a large and growing population (near 100 million); serves increasingly as a global manufacturing hub (will account for approximately 4% of global electronics exports by 2025); and has a soaring demand for energy (power generation capacity is expected to double by 2030). Although it currently relies heavily on coal, Vietnam is now leading the ASEAN region in solar power development, making it ripe for a clean energy transition.
But its abysmal human rights record and continued restrictions on basic civil and political rights, including freedom of expression, association, assembly, and the rights to freely practice beliefs and religion should raise alarm.
There is an onus on all EU and ASEAN member states to support just energy transitions in the region while meeting commitments under domestic and international laws on the protection of human rights, and the ability of citizens and civil society to engage freely in public discourse.
We welcome additional financing from historically polluting countries to fast-track developing countries’ transition to clean energy. But there are fundamental questions that must be considered to make sure the «just» aspects of the Just Energy Transition Partnerships are truly ensured.
Shifting from a coal-based economy to renewable energy for all nations requires all hands on deck. For Vietnam, those currently in prison were allies working constructively to assist the Vietnamese government in its revision of its energy plan to phase out coal and forge a path towards a clean, energy-secure future, and consequently, its net zero pledge to the world. That means their expertise must be welcomed in order for implementation to be successful and to ensure a transition that serves the health and well-being of everyone.
The climate crisis is a global issue that requires global solutions, with each nation needing to get on board for an equitable, rapid transition away from fossil fuels. Locking up a country’s environmental defenders is not only wrong from a human rights perspective, but will only slow down the massive shift that is needed to avoid the worst impacts for people and nature. There is no climate justice without ensuring human rights.
EU governments must work hand in hand to ensure strong support for fair, equitable and clean energy transitions for ASEAN nations, but in doing so, they must also ensure the ability of civil society and its environmental defenders to safely and freely contribute.
By Susann Scherbarth & Fanny Tri Jambore
Susann Scherbarth is the Climate Justice & Energy Campaigner for Friends of the Earth Germany.
Fanny Tri Jambore is the Campaign Manager for Energy and Mining of The Indonesian Forum for Environment (WALHI).