Why Are Some People More Opposed to Coal Plants than Others in Vietnam?


By Sung Eun Kim


Air pollution is a serious threat to public health and the environment of developing countries. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), around 7 million people died prematurely in 2012 – one in eight of total global deaths – as a result of exposure to air pollution. A recent estimate by the WHO shows that more than 90% of air pollution-related deaths occur in low- and middle-income countries in Asia and Africa. Given a high reliance on coal for their energy demand, the problem in developing countries is expected to worsen in the future. Despite a pressing problem of air pollution, however, not all individuals are aware of the problem and willing to support policy measures. What explains this difference across individuals?


In a recent project, we explored this question with the case of Vietnam. Major cities such as Ho Chi Minh City and Hanoi suffer from high levels of air pollution. According to Green Innovation and Development Centre (GreenID), a local environmental organization, the capital city Hanoi only experienced 38 days on which air quality would be considered healthy by the WHO. And it is 20 coal-fired plants that surround the city that is contributing to the contamination. Our estimate of air pollution emanating from coal plants (based on a Hybrid Single-Particle Legrangian Integrated Trajectory model), as well as our satellite measure of NO2, confirm this pattern. Take a look at the maps of pollution prevalence presented below (an estimate of coal plant pollution on the left, and a satellite measure of NO2 level on the right).


Then what does the public think about air pollution in Vietnam? And what influences the views of public toward air pollution? We examined these questions using the 2017 Vietnam Provincial Governance and Public Administration Performance Index (PAPI) survey. The survey includes 14,000 randomly selected Vietnamese citizens from all provinces. Our analysis reveals a wide range of variation in public awareness of air pollution. When asked to rate the air quality in one’s area, the majority of surveyed respondents rated the air quality as good (68%) or good on most days (17.3%) while only a small fraction of respondents rated it as poor (9.5%) or poor on most days (5.2%). Despite the overall positive perception of air quality, the majority of surveyed respondents (56.1%) answered that they wear masks for air quality when they are outside. Why do some individuals have positive perception of air quality while others have more negative views?


Not so surprisingly, one key determinant of individual perception of air pollution is an objective level of air quality in one’s area. We combined our ward-level pollution estimates data with the 2017 PAPI survey and found that one’s exposure to air pollution is clearly linked to individual assessment of air quality. Exposure to both NO2 and air pollution from coal plants were found to be clearly linked with one’s negative assessment of air quality in the area. We went further from here and investigated if there are negative political consequences of air pollution. And yes, one’s exposure to air pollution was found to be associated with dissatisfaction with governments at different levels (national governments, local committees and national assembly). The results certainly provide good news. Individuals tend to develop a `correct’ understanding of air pollution. And governments may have to pay the political costs due to dissatisfaction associated with air pollution.


However, our results also provide bad news. While exposure to air pollution was found to be linked with awareness of air pollution and dissatisfaction with government performance, the same factor did not appear to be associated with opposition to coal-fired power plants – a major source of air pollution! This is unfortunate because governments would be less willing to reduce their reliance on their coals as an attempt to reduce air pollution when their own citizens are not opposed to coal plants.


Then, what other factors are associated with one’s opposition to coal-fired power plants? Our study suggests that support for effective policy measures depend on education. Consistent with previous studies that emphasize the role of education in increasing environmental awareness, we found a significant association between education and opposition to coal plants as well as awareness of air pollution. High school graduates are more likely to oppose coal-fired power plants by 6 percentage point than others (a significant increase from an average level of opposition – 68%). This finding highlights the importance of education in increasing awareness of air pollution and fostering environmental consciousness among individuals. Importantly, our finding also suggests that education leads individuals to correctly understand the causes of environmental problem (coal-fired plants in this case) and support policy solutions to mitigate air pollution (stronger opposition to coal plants).


Our findings provide an important policy implication on how environmental groups, policy communities and the news media can increase government incentives for mitigating air pollution. As education is a key factor, the public should be educated and provided with more information on the detrimental effects of air pollution on health, sources of air pollution and the benefits of different policy options.



Sun Eun Kim is the Assistant Professor of Political Science at the Korea University. She is the Program Lead of Air Pollution at ISEP.