The U.S. Special Presidential Envoy for Climate Change delivered remarks while visiting Fulbright University Vietnam on February 25, 2022. 

It was in 2016 that Mr. John Kerry, the then U.S. Secretary of State, presided over the official launching ceremony of Fulbright University Vietnam in Ho Chi Minh City. A continuation from the success of the Fulbright Economics Teaching Program, which was founded in 1995 and bore the fruits of Kerry’s dedicated efforts to bring Vietnam and the United States closer through education cooperation, the university represents “a future that was not defined by war, but defined by learning, knowledge, and lessons that we can pass on to other generations,” as reiterated by Mr. Kerry during his recent visit to Fulbright’s Crescent Campus. 

The event was part of Mr. Kerry’s four-day visit to Vietnam, from February 22 to 25, 2022, as the U.S. Special Presidential Envoy for Climate Change. “What brings me to Vietnam, right now, is that the government of Vietnam made an important commitment in Glasgow [COP26] about achieving net-zero emissions by 2050,” he said. “This is a very important discussion we need to have now. This is something scientists have been telling us […] in simple mathematics and physics, that we need to reduce emissions by 45% between now and 2030. And 2050 is not achievable unless you do what you have to do now. That is the guidepost.”

A cleaner, safer, healthier world for future generations

At COP26, nearly 200 nations reached a climate agreement to accelerate efforts to limit the earth’s warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius, in a “critical decade” that requires reducing carbon dioxide emissions by 45% to reach net zero around mid-century. “What we did was create the framework for that resolution, and got more commitments from more countries and more private sector entities than ever in history,” said Mr. Kerry, as he reflected the coming together of countries representing 65% of global GDP, with respect to nationally determined contributions. “But that also means that 35% did not. So we still have to bring those countries on board. Because we believe there are possibilities for huge transitions here.”

Citing Vietnam’s remarkable renewable resources from wind to solar to hydropower, especially with Ninh Thuan and Binh Thuan provinces as magnets for clean energy projects, Mr. Kerry emphasized the country’s potential to make a coal-to-clean transition that will create jobs, reduce pollution, and help Vietnam “keep the lead that you have shown in these last years about how to build a vibrant economy and how to improve the life of people”. “I promise you, the building of this new clean energy future is providing for future generations a cleaner, safer, healthier world in which to live, where we have not the destruction of species, but genuine sustainability.”

As a result of this momentous global efforts to combat climate change, according to Mr. Kerry, there will be enormous demand for new skills across all spectrum of work, be it the demand for engineers, architects, designers, electricians, heavy equipment operators, or pipefitters to develop clean grids and build energy-efficient buildings. “I know because I’ve seen it first-hand in my own state in Massachusetts, and across our country. The fastest growing jobs in America are wind-turbine service technicians. And the third fastest growing jobs in America are solar panel installers. It’s happening, folks.”

During his exchange with Fulbright students, Mr. Kerry encouraged the young people of Vietnam to take the time to understand what they’re passionate about, to enjoy the fruits of being young, as well as the benefits of a great education. “In today’s world, you don’t have to pick one career,” he said. “In today’s world, you can go out there and have any number of things you wind up doing. Pick the things that excite you, and do what makes you happy in life.”  

“Green from the Beginning” – The public-private partnership at Fulbright

At the event, the U.S. Special Presidential Envoy for Climate Change also made a special announcement that USAID is going to provide Fulbright up to $16.5 million over the next 3 years, adding to the U.S. International Development Finance Corporation (DFC) previous commitment of $37 million, to further the university’s future development. 

In 2017, the then U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, along with the Overseas Private Investment Corporation (OPIC), the U.S. Government’s development finance institution, presented a letter of interest to Fulbright University Vietnam to support the design and construction of the university’s main campus. Since then, Fulbright is honored to have received generous financial commitments from private philanthropists all over the world, the U.S. development agencies, and the support of the Vietnamese government by donating a 15 hectare parcel of land in the Saigon High-Tech Park, to build its flagship campus in Ho Chi Minh City, the first phase of which will be completed in 2023. 

In her opening remarks, Fulbright President Dam Bich Thuy laid out the university’s vision of a green campus that will serve as a living sustainability laboratory for students, faculty and the interested public: committed to net-zero emission, it is built in adherence to LEED, the U.S. Green Building Council’s Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design certification system, and LOTUS, the Vietnam Green Building Council certification. 

“This campus will be the most environmentally advanced education complex ever built in Vietnam, demonstrating our commitment to solutions that mitigate and adapt to climate change,” said President Thuy. “This is a goal embodied not only by our investment in eco-friendly infrastructure, but also in everything we do, from teaching and research initiatives to policy advising to encouraging green projects from our community members.” 

The joint efforts from the public and private sectors between the two nations to invest in Fulbright, and thus, the future of Vietnam and its transition to renewable energy, were commended by Mr. Kerry as an extraordinary milestone that proves “you can make improbable things happen”, and that “green from the beginning” is something achievable even for a young institution like Fulbright. “This university is a monument to the ability of people to overcome dark times, and find the best [in ourselves], which is educating young people for the future,” Mr. Kerry said, reflecting on the positive changes he had witnessed during his many visits to Vietnam.

Mr. John Kerry: “I’m fighting for Plan A”

Talking to Fulbright students and distinguished guests of the university, Mr. Kerry stressed exciting opportunities for investment and development of green technologies. With examples of commitments made by corporations such as General Motors, Ford Motor Company, and Tesla, he underlined the American private sector’s support of their government towards a carbon-free future, and trillions of dollars from the global finance industry to invest in efforts to tackle climate change.   

“So that tells you a story about the marketplace, and where people are betting on the future,” he said. 

But how to get that money deployed is an important question Mr. Kerry expounded: “It’s not giveaway money. It’s investment money. So you have to create bankable projects. Governments need to work with philanthropies and bring multilateral development banks to the table to de-risk the investments. What really makes a difference is the investment money that has to be put on the table in order to buy the equipment, build the factory, pay the workers initially when there’s no revenue, get the business up and running – that is where the private sector is going to be.” 

In response to a question posed by Mr. Le Hong Minh, Co-Founder, Chairman and CEO of VNG, as well as one of the inaugural members of Fulbright’s Founders Circle, on whether or not there is a Plan B in the likelihood that the world fails to reach targets to combat climate change, the U.S. Special Presidential Envoy for Climate Change asserted: “Frankly, I don’t sit around thinking about Plan B, because I’m fighting for Plan A.”

“Europe has set the target to reduce net greenhouse gas emissions by at least 55% by 2030. The U.S.: 50 to 52% cut. UK: 68%. Canada: 45 to 50%. South Korea and Japan are about the same,” he said. “But let me remind you, just 20 countries account for 80% of global emissions. If we can get to 1.5 degrees without a bunch of countries, the possibilities of what we can get done are actually much bigger than that. We can win this battle if everybody gets on board and becomes a part of it. Now can we move fast enough? I believe we can.”

Bao Quyen

After completing the Energy Economics and Policy seminar, the Malaysian YSEALI alumna is strongly keyed to the power of transnational conversation – a prerequisite, she believes, to advance Southeast Asia’s transition into a clean energy future – for which the YSEALI Academy has proven to be an effective facilitating platform.

A roadmap for sustainability and climate change
Gan Wei Sim attributes her discovery of the Energy Economics and Policy seminar to a tip-off from a colleague in Thailand. “Naturally she’s known of my background and interest in the energy sector,” she says. “When I saw the topics that would be covered in the seminar such as energy market, energy policy and regulation [on the YSEALI’s website], I knew it would provide a strong foundation for my work.”

Among the 35 fellows participating in the seminar, all handpicked from hundreds of applications and representative of young professionals from 10 ASEAN countries and Timor Leste, Gan comes from the private sector. Her experience includes working as a Corporate Sustainability and Climate Change Consultant at one of the largest multinational providers of environmental, health, safety, risk, and social consulting services in Malaysia. Having obtained a master’s degree in Chemical and Environmental Engineering at the University of Nottingham in 2017, Gan started off as a junior consultant on technical risks and process safety.

Wei Sim (first from right) with members of the Nottingham Malaysia Society

The firm she’s worked for also provides strategic solutions for a wide range of local and international businesses, chief among them is the oil and gas, power and chemical industries with whom she’s had insightful conversations that motivate Gan’s dedication to sustainability and climate change issues. “When I set out working in the energy sector, I didn’t immediately register how severe, how carbon-intensive the burning of fossil fuels can be,” she recalls. “Then I went into doing my own research, reading articles, educating myself on that issue. Slowly my interest in the issue took hold and remains strong until this day.”

Gan Wei Sim (second from right) at the Building Bridges for Sustainable Consumption and Production (BB4SCP) conference

Many companies in Malaysia are striving to align with the global target of net-zero emissions. Working with international organizations such as WBCSD (World Business Council for Sustainable Development) and UNDP (United Nations Development Programme), Gan has helped devise action plans and roadmaps that bolster these corporations’ transition to a low carbon economy. “I understand that every country has different policies and regulations, not to mention their own energy market,” she says. “And so, the YSEALI seminar on Energy Economics and Policy is a great opportunity for me to gain knowledge. This kind of discussion is very important, especially when it focuses on Southeast Asia specifically, where collaboration and information exchange between nations is key to reach ASEAN’s renewable energy target and ultimately reduce carbon emissions from the energy sector.”

Wei Sim (third from right) at a client workshop about climate change

The spirit of camaraderie

A virtually hosted program, the YSEALI seminar on Energy Economics and Policy left a big impression on Gan on how “intensive yet well-organized and thought out” it was. “In just two weeks, we’d covered so many different topics, done lots of reading and assignments,” Gan says. “The seminar managed to invite into this collective space not only prominent scholars and industry experts as our lecturers, but also brilliant fellows from different countries in the region, with whom I’ve had inspiring discussions.”

While Gan was particularly fascinated with lectures on renewable energy, namely ‘Traditional, Clean, and Renewable Energy: Alternatives, Transition or Synergy’, or ‘Renewable and nonrenewable energy consumption, economic growth, and emissions’, she was even more fond of panel discussions regarding solar energy, offshore wind energy, and clean energy transition via electric vehicles. “These are exciting conversations that I’m quite interested to expand on, as they involve technologies geared to the future of energy,” she says. “Take solar energy for example, we got to hear from executives of major solar panel manufacturers. They provided us with real-life case studies to uncover, in which practical issues were thoroughly dissected and discussed.”

Wei Sim (first from left) at a seminar hosted by the Malaysian Youth Delegation (MYD)

These sessions proved to be helpful and informative for Gan as she recognizes the challenging gap between theory and the varying contexts from nation to nation on the path of clean energy transition. Insights into the geopolitical constraints, power market and structure, pricing and regulation of energy in each country, thus became vital. In that respect, the YSEALI fellows with whom she’s connected at the seminar have made the flow and exchange of information much easier. “This is a very talented group of young professionals,” she says. “With such diverse backgrounds in governments, NGOs or academic research, they have given me new perspectives, factoring in recommendations and consultations I’m working on at my job. I have learnt a lot from them, and of course, we still keep in touch.”

Active, willing to take initiative, highly skilled in teamwork and collaboration, Gan’s team of 5 successfully delivered their group project on “Southeast Asia Clean Energy Transition”, which was assigned to them at the start of the seminar. Some of the highlights of the 20-minute presentation are about affordable energy, electrification, power stability and connectivity in the region, whose current state of development presents a distinct contrast to what could be observed from developed countries. “The assignment prompted us to reconsider our different standings in social challenges and cultural backgrounds,” she says. “In Southeast Asia, we’re confronted with unique issues unlike other parts of the world that require education, government support and collaborative efforts across nations to make significant and long-lasting progress.”

Wei Sim at the “Walk the Talk” event at the Heriot-Watt University Malaysia

In her opinion, the YSEALI seminar serves as a good sounding board to jumpstart that vision. “I’m very happy to see initiatives like YSEALI started,” she smiles. “It helps build and strengthen our capability to combat climate change and deal with energy issues in Southeast Asia.” While the YSEALI Academy gears up for its upcoming seminar on ‘Digital Transformation Challenges and Opportunities in Post-COVID-19′, Gan hopes to see topics such as sustainable finance or green technology solutions receive coverage on future programs. “Not just energy, other sectors also play a critical role in facilitating the conversation and supporting this journey of ours to combat a pressing global issue,” she says. “I hope that the conversations we started here at the seminar will continue on, that it will expand and integrate more knowledge from other countries, other fields and disciplines. In that way, we can support each other, spread positive change across nations and drive our future forward in a sustainable manner.”

Bao Quyen

U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Wendy R. Sherman opened the YSEALI Academy at Fulbright University Vietnam’s first seminar on Energy Economics and Policy, welcoming the 35 participants and reaffirming U.S. commitment to young people across Southeast Asia.

I am delighted to welcome you, the inaugural cohort of the Young Southeast Asian Leaders Initiative Academy at Fulbright University Vietnam, and to offer my hearty congratulations. All of you were chosen to participate in this elite YSEALI program because of your leadership skills, your policy expertise and your deep commitment to solving the challenges facing Southeast Asia and the world.

Chief among those challenges, of course, is the climate crisis. Countries in Southeast Asia are already suffering because of the effects of climate change. Last year alone, more than half a million people were displaced due to natural disasters. And if we don’t cut greenhouse gas emissions, then by the middle of the century, rising seas will swamp areas across the region, where 48 million people live today.

But as you know, addressing the climate crisis isn’t just about staving off catastrophe. It’s also about creating opportunity. By transitioning to clean energy, we can prevent about half a million premature deaths a year in Southeast Asia alone. And if we prioritize clean energy, as we build back better from the COVID-19 pandemic, we can create 30 million jobs across the region.

The United States is partnering with ASEAN nations to help build more clean energy and fight climate change. In Vietnam, the State Department helped create the Renewable Energy Control Center, which is integrating clean energy into the electric grid, and providing valuable training to engineers, and we’re going to do more. Earlier this year, President Biden announced that the United States would double our financial contributions to global climate finance by 2024. That commitment will help finance clean energy, clean transportation and climate change resilience across Southeast Asia and around the world.

Just a few weeks ago, I took my first trip overseas as Deputy Secretary of State, which included stops in Indonesia, Thailand and Cambodia. While I was in Indonesia, I had the opportunity to meet with several YSEALI alumni who are working to drive action on climate change. Everywhere I go in the world, I make a point to meet with young people like you. You’re not waiting to be asked to do something to tackle the climate crisis, or get more clean energy on the grid, or create jobs for other young people. You’ve taken it into your own hands to build NGOs, launch new businesses and become advocates, pushing your governments to do more.

That’s why the United States launched YSEALI in the first place. And it’s why we are so proud to partner with Fulbright University Vietnam on this new academy. We want to help young people from across the ASEAN region make connections, learn new skills and build cross-border networks, including with the United States, to help solve big challenges. 60% of the people across the 10 ASEAN nations are under 35 years old. You are the leaders who are going to determine what the future looks like for your countries, for the ASEAN region and for the world.

Over the next few days, you’re going to learn from energy policy experts, practitioners, and from each other. You’re going to grow your leadership skills even more, and forge connections with each other that will last for the rest of your lives. And you’re going to join the impressive international group of YSEALI leaders who are changing things for the better.

Again, congratulations on your selection for the YSEALI Academy at Fulbright University Vietnam. I can’t wait to see what you do next. Thank you and have a great time.