Reforms in both economic and political sectors under the Đổi Mới stimulated rapid development in Vietnam. In just 30 years, Vietnam has become one of the world’s poorest nations to a lower middle-income country. However, from a PowerPoint presentation presented at WUSC Vietnam during my first week in Hanoi, Ms. Hue Nguyen, the country coordinator said “If Vietnam does not develop faster, Vietnam will forever be stuck to a lower middle-income country. This is because as Vietnam is developing, so is every other country in the world. This resulted in increasing rates of air pollution which is a type of pollution that causes a multitude of problems, not only towards the environment, but also to the health of sensitive people such as pregnant women, pregnant women, and the elderly (See Figure 1) As such, according to the World Health Organization (WHO), there are approximately 8 million deaths around the world caused by exposure to ambient (indoor) and household (indoor) air pollution every year.

Figure 1. Air Quality Index Chart, better known as AQI (an index reporting daily air quality, established by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency)

One way to measure air pollution is PM2.5, known as fine particles which are 2.5 micrometers or less in diameter. It is less than a fraction of the width of human hair. Inhaling particulate matters into the lungs can cause a number of diseases, including lung cancer. According to WHO, the amount of PM2.5 within the air should not exceed 10μg/m3 per year. Yet through the study done by GreenID, the annual average PM2.5 concentration in Hanoi during 2017 was 42.6μg/m3 and also violated WHO regulations 257 days out of the entire year.  Furthermore, the average AQI in Hanoi year round was approximately 101, making the outdoors constantly unsafe for sensitive people.  

As I observe the sky in the last few months, even a sunny day may not mean that the sky is clear. The smog covering the sky is a sign of polluted air. It has become one of the most alarming issues in Vietnam, yet not many people know enough to change (Refer to Figure 2). Thus, I wonder is it because most people are not well informed or are not informed at all which causes them to be unaware of how their actions result in contributing to the problem or are there other factors which have produced this outcome?

Figure 2. Results from an online survey done by GreenID

One of the most significant factors contributing to air pollution in Hanoi, as reported by the government of Vietnam is caused by beehive cookstoves. As coal accounts for over 50% of the energy produced in Vietnam and will continue to increase through energy forecasts, the beehive cookstoves are a problem in which the Vietnamese government wants to tackle (Refer to Figure 3). This is because there are approximately 55,000 beehive cookstoves in Hanoi which produce 1870 tons of carbon dioxide each day by burning more than 258 tons of coal. The stoves are used mostly by Hanoians at home, or for their small businesses and are the cheapest fuel used to cook food.

Figure 3. Structure of power sources of total energy production as estimated by GIZ Energy

Funded by USAID, the Centre of Live and Learn for Environment and Education (Live&Learn), Center for Supporting Green Development (GreenHub), GreenID, and Hanoi University of Science and Technology (HUST) collaborates to create a project called Clean Air Green Cities (CAGC). This project was created to address air pollution by mobilizing local communities to advocate for clean air. Aligned with the government’s roadmap in eliminating all beehive cookstoves – completely by 2020 and 70% by the end of 2018, as well as the Paris Agreement to lower carbon emissions, the partners of CAGC attempt to replace the beehive cookstoves through providing a more sustainable alternative.

Yet in reality, there is very little left of 2018 and little success has been achieved as only a pilot test has been done in Hoan Kiem District this past year. Through results seen on reports from Live&Learn and speaking with co-workers who have seen the progress, it showed that more people have come to realize the dangers of beehive cookstoves and what it does to the air. However, as much as they are willing to change, very few have been able to do so. It is because although alternatives have been invented, there are none that are on par in terms of use efficiency and cost to the beehive cookstove. Thus, when faced with fixing the environment for the survival of the next generation or continue to use the beehive cookstoves to provide themselves with income to live, it is not surprising to see these people choose the latter. Even as I go out to eat every day for lunch, I continue to see businesses cook and serve their food to customers through using their beehive cookstoves.

As such, even when people understand the problem with coal and how it contributes to air pollution, there is very little they can do. Without a better option and pressure from the government, users of the cookstove can only continue to use their stoves while counting the days until the ban is in full effect. Although CAGC partners are working hard to find alternatives, it is difficult to predict the future of these dependent beehive cookstove users. The case of beehive cookstoves and the coal use represents the difficulty in how change is accomplished in the developing world. Even when there are resources to make the country develop faster and better, these opportunities do not always keep locals, particularly those at the bottom, in mind.