Vietnam’s thermal power emissions are primed for a steep climb this summer after the country’s imports of thermal coal soared to their highest levels in three years in May and June.
Vietnam’s utilities boosted imports of thermal coal to more than 3 million tonnes in both May and June this year from a monthly average of around 1.5 million tonnes throughout 2022, data from Kpler shows, as a lengthy heatwave across the country caused a spike in air conditioner use.
The recent import spree brings Vietnam’s total imports for the first half of 2023 to roughly 13.5 million tonnes, which is the highest for that period since 2020, when Vietnam’s full-year coal imports hit an all-time high.
The sharply higher coal imports indicate that power producers have lifted coal-fired electricity generation to keep up with the demand for power-hungry air conditioning, and may generate commensurately higher power sector emissions going forward as the purchased coal gets burned to make power.
The sharp rise in thermal coal imports snaps a lengthy quiet spell by Vietnam, the 18th largest CO2 emitter globally in 2022, on international coal markets.
Vietnam’s monthly thermal coal imports have stayed below 2.5 million tonnes since August of 2020, and averaged only 1.4 million tonnes throughout 2021 and 2022 as the country’s utilities moved to increase renewable power output and reduce power sector emissions.
Diminished industrial activity in neighbour and key trade partner China in 2022, due to protracted lockdowns to limit the spread of COVID-19, also stifled Vietnam’s own industrial power needs over the past year.
However, China’s economy has revived in 2023 thanks to an array of stimulus measures by Beijing, which has helped spur growth along key supply chains within Vietnam and elsewhere across Asia.
Alongside this pick up in factory activity, Vietnam’s power producers have also had to accommodate higher demand for air conditioning in offices and households, which hit record levels in May and June as the country was gripped by intense heat waves.
To provide enough power for both elevated air conditioner use and higher production line output, Vietnam’s power producers are likely to have increased power generation from coal plants.
Coal accounted for an average of 38% of Vietnam’s electricity generation in 2022, according to Ember, but coal’s share in the generation mix rose to more than 50% in March as power firms increased overall coal-fired output.
Data on power generation since March is not yet available, but historically there has been a clear relationship between the country’s thermal coal imports and its subsequent thermal power output and emissions, with coal imports leading output and emissions by a few weeks to a month or so.
In 2020, the country’s coal imports peaked in May at just over 5.1 million tonnes, while its coal-fired power emissions peaked in the same month at nearly 10.5 million tonnes of carbon dioxide (CO2) and equivalent gases, data from Kpler and think tank Ember shows.
With coal imports May and June this year jumping to roughly double the average from the previous full year, it is likely that power producers have also sharply increased coal’s share of the electricity generation mix in the period since then.
In turn, that higher coal-fired generation is likely to have yielded sharply higher emissions loads, especially in the north which is home to a majority of the country’s largest coal plants.
Monthly power sector emissions data for May and June will not be available until later in the year, but recent air quality readings for Vietnam indicate a worsening in air quality across the north from earlier in the year, and in comparison to other cities in the region which are less reliant on coal power.
Those readings may worsen further in the weeks ahead as coal-fired generation levels crank up and stay elevated until the peak demand season ends towards the end of the northern hemisphere summer.