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Bhutan: The World’s Only Carbon-Negative Country

Despite many international summits and conferences in the past few years, governments around the world are struggling to reduce their carbon footprint. However, through all the soot and smog, there remains a glimmer of hope that offers solutions to the climate catastrophe: the Kingdom of Bhutan. While some countries continue to amplify the effects of climate change by releasing large amounts of carbon dioxide, Bhutan, along with some others, have taken the initiative to offset their emissions through the implementation of renewable technologies or growing more trees. Bhutan also extracts carbon from the atmosphere, making it the world’s only carbon negative country. This unparalleled achievement, in addition to Bhutan’s zealous commitment to sustainable governance and resolute environmental reforms, offers the world a reality in which carbon-free living is possible. 

In the late 1970s, inspired by traditional Buddhist doctrine, the government of Bhutan implemented a novel governing philosophy: Gross National Happiness (GNH). This philosophy, implemented under Bhutan’s fourth king, Jigme Singye Wangchuk, helped build sustainability into their national identity. This GNH system prioritizes the happiness of the Bhutanese people above the commonly-used Gross Domestic Product (GDP), which compares countries based on their economic performance. The happiness of citizens is quantified through surveys developed by Bhutan’s Gross National Happiness Commission, which consider thirty-three domains of GNH, including education, living standards, health, environment, community vitality, time use, psychological well-being, good governance, and cultural resilience and promotion. Using the results of these surveys, the GNH Commission creates policies that improve the quality of life of the Bhutanese people. While the GDP of this small nation remains at only around two billion dollars, its emphasis on prioritizing people over profit is demonstrated through a myriad of nurturing social and environmental practices. 

The arrival of “green schools” to Bhutan in 2008 highlights the series of national reforms implemented within the framework of GNH. An article from The Guardian describes the variety of projects introduced to all educational facilities including a “national waste management program [which] ensures that every piece of material used at the school is recycled.” Students are taught the importance of agriculture and environmental protection, in addition to their math and science curriculum. Choki Dukpa, the headteacher at a primary school in Thimphu, the capital of Bhutan, hopes to instill in her students that “‘the idea of being green does not just mean the environment, it is a philosophy for life.’”

In addition to this reform in education, the Bhutanese government has adopted many social and economic initiatives demonstrating their commitment to sustainability-minded goals. Rural farmers in Bhutan are provided with free electricity, which eliminates any dependency on wood fuels for heating and cooking purposes. Although there are no traffic lights in this mountainous kingdom, their government not only subsidizes the purchase of LED lights, but is also investing in sustainable transport and subsidizing the purchase of electric vehicles. Bans on tobacco products, plastic bags, and timber exports add to the existing provisions encouraging sustainable living. 

Bhutan’s commitment to sustainable governance also extends to its natural resources. Article Five, Section Three of the Constitution of Bhutan mandates that “a minimum of sixty percent of Bhutan’s total land shall be maintained under forest cover for all time.” While this standard may seem an impossible target, 72% of Bhutan’s landmass is already covered by forests, and this number continues to grow through Bhutanese initiatives to plant more trees in degraded areas. This abundance of forested land not only serves as a hotspot for ecological divesrsity, but also plays a role in removing over six million tons of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. As a country that only produces 2.2 million tons of carbon dioxide, this large swath of forest accounts for the storage of more than four million tons of carbon dioxide. In addition to this sequestration, Bhutan is committed to harnessing the hydropower potential of its fast-flowing rivers to generate electricity that would offset more than seventeen million tons of carbon dioxide by 2020.

However, Bhutan’s natural resources—and its people—are continuously threatened by the calamitous effects of climate change, which the country is working hard to prevent. Indeed, there is much at stake for the people of Bhutan, who are implementing change amidst a world less committed to reducing its carbon footprint. The mountainous country is highly vulnerable to extreme weather conditions, including flooding and landslides, which are the result of retreating glaciers in the Himalayas. An article from Nature further describes the challenges that the Bhutanese face in managing their liquifying landscape. Through no fault of their own, glaciers in the Himalayas are “retreating faster than in any other part of the world and… could disappear completely by 2035.” Since Bhutan contains 983 glaciers and 2,794 glacial lakes in an area smaller than Switzerland, the Bhutanese people face a grave and imminent danger. 

Despite the nation’s efforts to combat global warming through progressive environmental regulations, Bhutan still remains a developing country that does not have “the technical and financial resources to study the changes that are happening.” Rapidly melting glaciers, such as the Luggye glacier in northern Bhutan, pose a massive flooding threat to downstream communities. On October 7th, 1994, in the only scientifically documented glacial flood in Bhutan’s history, the ridge along the glacier broke and, according to Nature, “released an estimated 18 million cubic metres of water and debris down the Pho River, killing 21 people and razing fields and settlements… with a jumble of uprooted trees, boulders and mud.” While this flood may be the only documented occurrence of disastrous proportion, as Himalayan glaciers continue to thaw, the prospects of a “happily ever after” for this kingdom seem to be just another dream melting away. 

Bhutan is a place that defines its own value not based on profit, but on the happiness of its people; a nation whose government wholeheartedly supports the protection of its natural resources, and which has embraced carbon-free living. Through the implementation of sustainable governance within the framework of GNH, Bhutan offers the world key guiding principles on how to reduce our carbon footprint and promote the needs of society. A variety of countries including Brazil, Canada, and the United States have considered using the GNH metric as a tool to assess the happiness of its citizens. Although it is challenging for a country to maintain the happiness of hundreds of millions of people, let alone one million, there are ways in which larger populations can apply Bhutanese philosophies into our own lives. Governments of all nations, no matter how large or small, can prioritize the interests of the public over economic gains. If the nations of the world invest more in the happiness of their people, future generations may enjoy a carbon-neutral planet unencumbered by the woes of the climate catastrophe. 


Sources:

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Tobgay, Tshering. “This country isn’t just carbon neutral – it’s carbon negative.” TED Talks, uploaded by TED2016, Feb. 2016, https://www.ted.com/talks/tshering_tobgay_this_country_isn_t_just_carbon_neutral_it_s_carbon_negative.

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