Environmental Hero: Khanh Nguy Thi

Environmental Hero: Khanh Nguy Thi

Each week One Earth is proud to feature an environmental activist and hero from around the globe who is working to create a world where humanity and nature can coexist in harmony.

Born in a rural village near a coal plant in northern Vietnam, Khanh Nguy Thi experienced firsthand how lethal pollution and dust from coal power can be when many people in her community were diagnosed with cancer. Vietnam’s rapidly developing economic growth has caused a striking increase in energy demands. This need for electricity has caused Vietnam to emerge as one of Asia’s leading nations with coal plant construction. In 2011, the Vietnamese government published its Power Development Plan for 2011-2020 calling for 75,000 megawatts of coal-fired power by 2030. Coal burned in Vietnam is also imported, which not only affects the climate, but intensifies the country’s reliance on expensive imports. As the dirtiest form of electricity generation, coal is responsible for a huge percentage of global greenhouse gas emissions while polluting our air and water.

Hanoi. Image credit: Goldman Environmental Prize

Although she went to school to become a diplomat, Nguy Thi’s passion for the environment led her to start working on water conservation issues for a small Vietnamese nonprofit organization. As her awareness of the dangers of pollution grew, she knew she had to get involved and educate herself about coal and climate change. In 2011, she founded the Green Innovation and Development Centre (GreenID) to promote sustainable energy development, and established the Vietnam Sustainable Energy Alliance, a network of 11 Vietnamese and international environmental and social organizations in order to develop an alternate, more sustainable plan.

In 2013, while joining forces with energy experts, Nguy Thi produced a study detailing how expensive and lethal coal is as a primary source of electrical power. The study explained ways to reduce the coal share of the power supply in favor of sustainable energy alternatives. Simultaneously, there were various coal-related environmental disasters in Vietnam which only justified the dangers of coal and helped to push the discussion about Vietnam’s energy future. Nguy Thi and Green ID traveled through Vietnam’s urban and rural areas to educate communities affected by the disasters and set up training sessions. She put a grassroots plan into motion that fostered activities like energy saving programs and neighborhood clean ups. Getting the media involved, she also raised awareness as evidence-based articles highlighted the cost of coal and its impacts. 

Khanh Nguy Thi at her office in Hanoi. Image credit: Courtesy of Goldman Environmental Prize

Her plan worked. The media’s extensive coverage opened up public debate about coal energy and she was able to collaborate with the Vietnamese government on a revised energy policy. In 2016, the government announced its new Power Development Plan that reduced the number of coal plants and included Nguy Thi’s recommendation to increase renewable energy to 21% by 2030.

Nguy Thi understands and teaches that fostering an energy transition more quickly is essential for us and for our children. In an unprecedented moment for Vietnam, she won the 2018 Goldman Environmental Prize that honors grassroots environmental activists. It was the first Goldman Prize for Vietnam. Today, she continues her work with the government, advocating sustainable energy alternatives for her country.

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