Dao Duy Dang remembers the night in 1963 when the lights came on in Uong Bi. "People were so excited," the 70-year-old tea-shop owner says, recalling the cheers that rang through the northern Vietnamese town after one of the country's first coal-fired power plants began operating. "Their whole lives they had wished for electricity." Be careful what you wish for. Soon after the plant opened, Dang's wife developed a cough from the thick black smoke from the power plant that hung over the town. His children had near-constant runny noses and neighbors reported other nagging health problems. When Vietnam's government announced plans to add a second coal-fired generator in 2005, villagers didn't celebrate. "The people cried out," Dang says.
It isn't just the residents of Uong Bi who are caught in this dilemma. Throughout Vietnam — indeed, in most of the developing world — demand for cheap electricity is quickly rising. But as countries turn to abundant coal as the energy source of choice, many worry an environmental catastrophe is in the making. As the rest of the world struggles for solutions to global warming, Vietnam has built eight new coal-fired power plants in the past five years and plans to open at least a dozen more by 2012. Last year, Vietnam got only 19% of its power from coal, relying mostly on hydropower and low-emissions gas-fired generators. By 2020, the government estimates coal will be Vietnam's leading source of energy at 34%.
This trend troubles Jasper Inventor, a climate and energy campaigner for the environmental group Greenpeace. Coal-burning plants generate 36% of the emissions blamed for global warming — far more than those produced by road traffic, which account for 17% of the world's CO2 emissions, according to the International Energy Agency. Inventor worries that by committing to coal, countries such as Vietnam are making a mistake that will be difficult, if not impossible, to undo. "In the longer term, we believe this will be a losing proposition for Vietnam," Inventor says.
But Vietnam's leaders believe they have little choice. To maintain economic growth of around 8% per year, the state power company, Electricity of Vietnam (EVN), needs to double its capacity to an estimated 26,000 megawatts by 2010. Vietnam's hydropower potential is nearly exhausted — the 2,400-megawatt Son La dam now under construction is the last feasible major project, EVN spokesman Nguyen Duc Long says. Prices for natural gas, another fuel source for electrical generators, are up 15-20% over last year, and domestic gas reserves are too small to meet demand. Vietnam is planning nuclear power plants, but the first won't be ready until 2020. Coal, on the other hand, is readily available. The country's northern Red River delta has some 30 billion tons of coal reserves — enough to generate electricity for 100 years. "If we could have the same economic development and still ensure the environment — well, of course we'd all pick that," says Long. "But there's no other way than coal."
That's a conclusion other developing countries have reached. Between 2001 and 2006, the amount of coal used worldwide to generate electricity grew by 30%, with China and India accounting for more than three-quarters of the increase, according to the WWF, which monitors global warming. Thailand and Malaysia, which switched to gas-fired power plants in recent years, are now turning back to coal. There's no shortage of investors. Despite objections from environmental groups, the Asian Development Bank (ADB) last month agreed to fund the $1 billion, 2,200-megawatt Mong Duong coal plant in northern Vietnam. Greenpeace has urged the ADB to invest in alternative-energy projects instead. But technologies such as wind power aren't advanced enough to meet Vietnam's needs, says Woo Chong Um, the ADB's energy director for sustainable development. "We're trying to keep [Vietnam] as clean as possible under the circumstances," Um says. "But in the meantime, the country has to light itself up."
Vietnamese officials say they are trying to ease the environmental impact of coal power by using clean-burning technology and by encouraging energy conservation. EVN has launched a rebate campaign promoting power-saving fluorescent lightbulbs; Vietnam recently passed a clean-air law that requires new coal plants to install filters for toxic sulfur dioxide and nitrogen. In Uong Bi, EVN installed filters on the new generator's smokestack — a measure that tea-shop owner Dang says has reduced the black smoke. But even the most advanced technologies can't cut CO2 emissions by much. Carbon sequestration — a proposed method of fighting global warming that siphons off carbon dioxide emissions and pumps them underground — is at least a decade away from large-scale use. "Clean coal is a myth," says Inventor.Poverty isn't, and EVN's Long says Vietnam's priority is economic development — and that requires abundant electricity for manufacturing and to meet the needs of an expanding middle class. "If we don't use coal power, then we'll have a beautiful environment but a lot of poverty," says Long. "We have to make a choice." Vietnam has decided to turn the lights on now, and deal with climate change later.
Chinese reliance on that drrrty fuel, coal, has been exceedingly well-documented. Coal in China is locally available and relatively inexpensive in comparison to imported energy supplies. Now, Vietnam's development has mirrored that of China's in several respects, especially in aping the phenomena of "market socialism" (whatever that is). Next to China, Vietnam is supposed to be the second-fastest growing economy in the region. However, one of the things environmentalists ought to be concerned about is Vietnam's similar dependence on coal. There seems to be no getting away from the stuff or its ecological consequences. Along the way, we encounter that Catch-22 of a question: Is there a tradeoff between economic growth and taking care of the environment? From TIME: