Three years ago, during a visit to Vietnam, I had the nice fortune of meeting an environmental hero, named Nguy Thi Khanh. I watched as she skillfully built bridges between people, industry leaders and government officials to guard communities from harmful coal pollution, paving the way in which for Vietnam’s sustainable energy future.
Since then, Khanh’s efforts have proved fundamental to Vietnam having the largest installed capability of wind and solar energy in Southeast Asia; and to the federal government’s commitment of net zero emissions by 2050, made on the United Nations Climate Conference (COP26) last yr. Khanh attended COP26, drove conversations with the federal government about easy methods to phase out coal in favour of renewables, and has actively advocated for Vietnam to speed up its National Power Development Plan, which goals to shift towards increased wind and solar energy.
So you may imagine how shocked and saddened I used to be to learn that Khanh — the primary Vietnamese person to receive a Goldman Environmental Prize — was recently sentenced to 2 years in prison for the alleged crime of tax evasion. Along with Khanh, three other environmental leaders in Vietnam are also now facing multiyear prison sentences on similar charges — all prior to now yr. Amongst them is distinguished environmental lawyer Dang Dinh Bach, who was designated to observe the implementation of the European Union-Vietnam Free Trade Agreement just before his arrest.
Charging these particular individuals with tax-related crimes appears to be aimed toward silencing members of Vietnam’s civil society who’re pressuring the federal government to further strengthen their climate and environmental commitments, keeping the country’s people on the centre.
While Khanh worked with respectful diplomacy, she maintained a powerful voice against coal. She created the Vietnam Sustainable Energy Alliance (VSEA) to mobilise around this issue, which opposed the interests of certain segments of the federal government that support legacy coal interests. For them, she and the VSEA represent uncomfortable watchdogs urging the country to transition to wash energy faster.
Sarcastically, Vietnam is now poised to potentially receive billions of dollars from foreign governments, including america, Canada, the EU and the UK, to facilitate what is named a Just Energy Transition Partnership (JET-P).
It could possibly be announced at COP27 this November. Last yr, an analogous package was announced with South Africa, where I’m from, and is now at the center of a vigorous debate on motion towards a low-carbon economy and climate-resilient society, and on the meaning of justice in a just transition.
Fundamentally, a “just transition” describes the shift away from fossil fuels in a way that secures the health and livelihoods of those most affected by climate change. It re-envisions a more sustainable economy and an equitable society through widespread, grassroots debate. The emergence of just transition as a debate and a platform of motion for the South African government comes after years of advocacy by communities including those of us who’ve lived alongside the dirty fossil fuel industry.
Growing up in a Black family during apartheid, I used to be forced to live 143 metres (470 feet) from an oil refinery and suffered health complications from toxic air pollution. My pollution-related asthma resulted in serious respiratory difficulties and a weak body. On the age of eight, to get away from this toxic pollution, I used to be sent to a rural boarding school 750km (466 miles) from my parents whom I saw only twice a yr for the subsequent five years.
Voices that really understand the concept of environmental justice, similar to Khanh’s and Bach’s, are critical to any process that goals at a just transition. In post-apartheid South Africa, we’ve managed to interact our government and push for change through participation in policy processes, and advocacy in parliament and the general public domain.
At once, such a inclusion is being suppressed in Vietnam. Independent voices calling for transparency and accountability are clearly not as welcome as they’ve been prior to now. Vietnam’s package cannot qualify as “just” if local experts and non-profit leaders like Khanh are usually not able to interact on this issue.
The UK and other G7 governments currently negotiating the JET-P and other clean energy deals with Vietnam should challenge the federal government in Hanoi on the way it plans to fulfill its ambitious climate goals while Khanh, Bach and others like them are in jail.
Public scrutiny is important in order that there’s transparency and society knows what’s being offered. Foreign governments doing business with Vietnam should be certain that local nonprofits are in a position to operate safely and effectively without fear of criminalisation in order that there’s accountability every step of the way in which.
Khanh’s sentencing has already been met with international condemnation, including by the UK, the United States, Canada, Germany and the EU, which have called for her release. Beyond these developed countries, we’d like the whole world to sentence what is occurring in Vietnam, especially South Africa and others from the Global South who might turn out to be potential recipients of their very own just energy transition packages similar to Indonesia, Nigeria and Senegal.
Because the world comes together in Egypt for COP27 soon, people like Khanh, with deep knowledge and experience in moving away from coal while balancing the needs of varied stakeholders, are essential for achieving real change.
She and her fellow activists brought Vietnam to a perch from where sustainable energy independence appears possible. Only once they and other members of civil society are in a position to contribute their expertise freely can the country profit from a really just energy transition.
The views expressed in this text are the writer’s own and don’t necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.