Windpower stations Vietnam
Windpower stations Vietnam. Picture by the author.

How Just is the Just Energy Transition Partnership in Vietnam?

21. Jun 2023

Julia Behrens,Post Doc Fellow, University of Bielefeld

In the middle of May, a sigh of relief went through the Vietnamese environmental civil society community. Nguy Thi Khanh announced on her Facebook page that she was home with family. Khanh, one of the best-known advocates for renewable energy in Vietnam, had been arrested in the beginning of 2022 for tax evasion. Before that, she was the director of the local NGO GreenID, the first Vietnamese to win the Goldman Environmental prize and her input on the energy transition was valued inside and outside Vietnam. Her arrest was a surprise to civil society actors.

Vietnam is an authoritarian state under the rule of the Communist Party Vietnam (CPV). Benedict Kerkvliet has coined the term “repressive-responsive” system to describe the state’s power architecture. There is room to navigate and protest, but only within certain red lines. Critique cannot become systemic, threaten economic interests or attack individuals in powerful positions. On a local level, however, small-scale protests have been successful in the past.

The environmental community, including Khanh herself, was convinced that Khanh was working within the red lines (personal communication with experts and NGO representatives 2022). No one knows what was the actual trigger for her arrest, but speculations are that she became too influential for some decision-makers. As a consequence of her imprisonment and alongside new decrees that made it harder for NGOs to get permits for project implementation in Vietnam, NGOs started to lay low. Workshops were moved from public to closed settings, publications got put on hold, activities were not started in the first place.

Into this setting came the announcement of the Just Energy Transition Partnership (JETP) with Vietnam. The JETP is a mechanism by the G7 countries and the EU, together called the International Partnership Group (IPG), to implement their (financial) commitments for climate mitigation in the Global South and exhilarate the energy transition in so-called developing countries. South Africa and Indonesia’s JETPs were announced as the first two, making Vietnam the third JETP in December 2022 with a total financial volume of 15.5 billion USD in grants, loans and projected investments.

The IPG emphasizes the J in JETP on purpose. Behind that are important considerations and the success of social movements: workers movements have, originating from the US, advocated for making the economic transition towards a carbon-free economy a just one. Climate action is supposed to be understood as a social task, too. The closing down of coal mining and the introduction of solar power, for example, demands re-skilling, early retirement schemes, participation of the work force and trade union in the transition process. The International Labor Organization (ILO) has published guidelines on Just Transition that are an important reference for the JETPs.

The justice aspect has since been broadened by other civil society actors and incorporates other marginalized groups and intersectional discrimination. On a global scale, it means justice between the Global South and North and the demand by governments and groups from the South towards the JETP that the financial support should be in forms of grants not loans. It also means including all affected groups in the transition: local communities, all gender groups, informal workers, disabled people, etc. Within the framework of South Africa and Indonesia, the JETP negotiations foresee a meaningful involvement of civil society groups throughout the process of negotiating and implementing the framework (personal communication with NGOs in South Africa and Indonesia 2022).

While there have been shortcomings in those country partnerships already, the case of Vietnam is even more difficult due to the political context already described. For the Vietnamese side, “just” means support from industrial countries in the fight of the climate crisis due to their historic responsibility. It also means keeping the price of electricity at an accessible level for all groups in society and providing enough electricity to prevent power cuts.  Additionally, in the JETP agreement between IPG and Vietnam, workers are a focus in reference to the ILO Just Transition guidelines. Re-skilling programs among others are supposed to be part of the JETP financing mechanism. The Vietnamese government welcomes this support and will implement it in cooperation with the trade unions.

The IPG tried to push the justice aspect further by including the necessary participation of NGOs and media in the agreement, as well. As a result, one sentence was included that puts down the participation in writing. However, after the release of the JETP agreement, only very few media and NGOs dared to report on it due to the political climate (personal communication with NGOs 2023). The energy question is systemic. Not only is it a question of national importance and coordination, but vested economic interests are involved, too. Coal-producing provinces are not the ones with a high potential for renewable energy, causing worries to provincial governments who rely on coal. Additionally, two-thirds of coal-fired power plants are state-owned, while state-owned enterprises only make up four per cent of solar power and one per cent of installed wind power capacities as of 2021. Khanh’s arrest is likely proof that energy matters fall under the “repressive”, not “responsive” side of the Vietnamese state.

Nguy Thi Khanh was released five months early from her prison sentence. Could this be a sign that the Vietnamese government is making a step towards the “just” understanding of the IPG and JETP? Hardly. Only two weeks after Khanh’s early release, another star of the Vietnamese environmental civil society scene has been arrested: Hoang Thi Minh Hong, previous head of the Vietnamese NGO CHANGE and Obama fellow in 2018, on the same charges as Khanh. There is no sign that the political climate will change. The IPG needs to be aware of the limitations of the JETP and possible consequences for agreements in other countries: a watered down “just” part could return the partnership to a technical undertaking and diminish the discourse around Just Transition.