The high costs of Hanoi's low air quality

April 19, 2024 | 07:01 pm PT
Vo Nhat Vinh Researcher
My biggest concern during holidays and festivals is my children's health since they have to travel between their maternal and paternal grandparents' homes in the south and north.

After many trips, I realized that trains, buses or the weather do not affect them as much as pollution: The clearest sign is that they often have respiratory problems whenever they visit Hanoi, especially in the damp season.

Our relatives, seemingly overwhelmed by the excitement of having the children visit, do not pay much attention to the air quality.

When the children complain they "dare not breathe deeply," the adults wave it off saying: "It's fine, it's just the dampness."

The thick fog during the Lunar New Year, when my children were in Hanoi, was also explained away as the effect of the dampness.

However, according to IQAir Air Quality, on the morning of Feb. 2, Hanoi was at times the most polluted city in the world.

On the same day the Facebook page of the World Health Organization (WHO) in Vietnam posted that the air quality in Hanoi had reached very harmful levels. By mid-morning the concentration of fine particles was 29 times higher than WHO’s recommended level.

At a workshop on April 11 the Center for Environmental Monitoring and Modeling reported that Hanoi is polluted with PM2.5 and PM10 fine dust. In other words, the fog in Hanoi is caused by pollution and is not a natural phenomenon.

In English, natural fog is called "fog," but "smog" is a portmanteau of "smoke" and "fog," meaning fog caused by dust and smoke. In the case of Hanoi, it truly is "smog."

Pollution does not just hinder daily life: WHO estimates 60,000 people die annually in Vietnam due to air pollution-related issues.

But the dangers of air pollution have not been adequately addressed.

Environmentalists believe there are five main sources of pollution in Hanoi, with traffic being the largest source of PM2.5 emissions, accounting for 50-70%. It is followed by industry.

But this is not unique to Hanoi. In other countries, industrial production, agriculture and vehicles also play a major role in pollution.

But why have many countries been able to solve, or at least mitigate, pollution so that it is not as severe as in Hanoi?

Because they have solutions and are determined to make such solutions work well.

In many European countries, authorities categorize vehicles based on their pollution levels. They also use a system to publicize air pollution levels in major cities. Based on the level each day, vehicles corresponding to certain labels will be banned from the roads that day. The more polluted the air gets, the more vehicle types are banned.

For example, in France, the Central Air Monitoring Research Room (LCSQA) - tasked with rapid air quality response - provides daily urban air quality statistics. Based on this index, information boards on highways, city gates and the portals of administrative agencies indicate which vehicles are allowed.

Traffic patrol forces check vehicle emission labels. Many cities also use mobile and automatic scanning services to manage parking violations and check for insurance and emission standards.

The French capital, Paris, has days when car traffic is banned in downtown areas.

From Sept. 1, 2024, parking fees for vehicles over 1.6 tons and SUVs are set to be tripled.

But Vietnam has yet to effectively address vehicle emissions, such as for aging cars and motorcycles. According to the Registry Department, as of early 2024 there were an additional 14,000 cars that had exceeded their intended lifespans.

The laws stipulate fines of up to VND12 million ($472.35) for driving vehicles past their designed lifespans.

But the flow of information between traffic agencies and police is not smooth, and, as a result, expired vehicles still ply on the roads.

In this situation, an automated traffic monitoring system should be integrated to scan and review the license plates of expired vehicles, which are a major source of pollution.

Just like how students get a day off when the temperature drops below a certain level, the government should establish rules for days with high pollution levels that restrict certain types of vehicles, give students days off and allow certain agencies to work remotely.

The European Union also encourages the agricultural sector to implement biodiversity policies to increase land cover and reduce emissions.

As a country still dependent on agriculture, Vietnam needs to pay more attention to this issue.

With the lack of biodiversity and an optimal cultivation cycle, the agricultural sector is facing the issue of widespread use of chemical fertilizers, a major source of environmental pollution.

The VAC (garden - pond - livestock) model was once a closed economic model in agriculture that changed the lives of Vietnamese farmers.

Now we need a more sustainable economic model for the quality of soil - water - air.

Air pollution in the capital has reached alarming levels. Hanoi is making efforts to improve the quality of life for its residents, from investing in public infrastructure to digital transformation and streamlining administrative procedures.

However, another fundamental factor that needs improvement is the air itself, to ensure that people can breathe safely.

*Vo Nhat Vinh is an R&D expert based in France.

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