JUST DO IT – Vietnam can learn from COVID-19 to address its environment and climate challenge

Source(s): World Bank, the
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By Jacques Morisset

In French, my native language, we say «comparaison n’est pas raison» (comparison is not an argument) because comparisons are always a bit unfair.

However, in Vietnam, it is difficult not to be tempted to compare the COVID-19 crisis with the recent series of tropical storms that have ravaged the country’s central region.  The pandemic has killed so far 35 people while the storms caused over 250 casualties and affected directly about 1.5 million people during a few weeks in October and early November 2020.

The economic losses associated with the pandemic containment measures have been substantial in 2020, leading to a projected 4.2 percent drop in GDP growth compared to the economic trajectory before the coronavirus. Meanwhile, the economic damages from the storms have been estimated in the range of USD1.3 billion or approximately 0.5 percent of GDP.

My take from this comparison is not to claim that climate disasters are a more serious threat than the biggest pandemic of the past decades or vice-versa. Rather I wonder why Vietnam has not been as effective in dealing with environmental and climate challenges as with the COVID-19 crisis. 

Many would argue that the rapid response to the pandemic has been a necessity to prevent a high and uncontrollable number of deaths in the short-term as well as to contain immediately devastating effects on the economy and society. By contrast, environment and climate challenges are generally not perceived with the same sense of urgency, explaining why most governments and people have been slow to adjust to climate changes.

However, this (time inconsistency) argument is somewhat fallacious when confronted with evidence. True, the burden of climate change will be mainly on future generations, but the costs of inaction are already visible today. Beyond the damages associated with bigger and more frequent storms, the high level of air pollution in Vietnam's major cities is already causing the death of approximately 60,000 people per year according to the World Health Organization. The Mekong delta is an ecological disaster because of rising ocean waters and the exhaustion of cultivable land, leading to productivity losses in agriculture. I could easily multiply those examples, but my main message is that the current costs associated with environmental damages and climate changes can reach, when taken altogether, as much as 6-7 percentage points of GDP in Vietnam.

The latest edition of the Vietnam’s Taking Stock report by the World Bank argues that the successful management of the COVID-19 crisis can inspire Vietnam to tackle better its environmental and climate challenges. 

Two lessons stand out.

First, the COVID-19 crisis has demonstrated that it is better to be ready and to act quickly and boldly when confronted with an external shock. For this reason, Vietnam should think green and clean as much and as soon as possible in almost all its policies, investments, and actions. The cost of inaction will increase rapidly, as many damages will become irreversible soon. Several examples are developed in the above-mentioned report to illustrate how Vietnam could become the champion of the green, blue, or clean recovery in the post-pandemic era.    

Second, Vietnam policymakers should adopt the same approach that has helped them to implement quickly the measures required to fight the pandemic. Beyond vision and capacity, they have created a space for innovation and experimentation. This was done efficiently through a combination of online reporting to monitor suspicious and confirmed cases, smart coordination across agencies and between central and local authorities, and transparent communication to a broad audience using digital tools and platforms. Such an innovative approach should be replicated to the environmental agenda as it will help strengthen accountability as well as individual and collective responsibilities, which are so important for changing behaviors in front of a pandemic or an environmental threat.

I strongly believe that by applying these two lessons Vietnam will not only improve its resilience and sustainability but also reach its goal of becoming a high-income economy by 2045. By just doing it, Vietnam will continue to run fast but will also learn to run smarter as the objective of economic development should be as much as to create wealth as not to destroy it.

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