Carbon emissions have long been discussed by scientists and lead to alarming warnings on the future of the world’s climate emergency. Scientists projected that fossil-fuel-related carbon dioxide emissions hit a record high of 37.1 billion metric tons in 2018, adding on that total carbon dioxide concentrations in the atmosphere hit their highest level ever, at 407 parts per million—about 45 percent higher than their preindustrial levels. The United States is one of the leading countries in carbon dioxide emissions, and under the current administration it’s unlikely its pollution levels will improve.
However, on the other side of the world, nestled in the Eastern Himalayas in between China and India lies the country of Bhutan. The small country spans about 14,800 square miles, slightly larger than the U.S. state of Maryland, its inhabited by a population of 750,000 people, but most importantly: Bhutan is the only country that is carbon negative, meaning the country absorbs more greenhouse gases (including the infamous carbon dioxide) than it emits, actually it absorbs three times the amount of carbon dioxide than it releases.
I will quickly bring up the disclaimer than I do not intend to compare the United States and other countries that are vastly different to Bhutan, the differences are obvious: the United States is 3.797 million mi² big and home to a population of ~328million people, to say it dwarves Bhutan would be an understatement.
Nonetheless, I do believe that learning about countries like Bhutan and how their choices that are foreign to the norm can lead to seemingly impossible feats allows us to broaden our perspectives on what is possible. The climate emergency we all face is quickly accelerating, and if big fish like the U.S. can learn from smaller fish like Bhutan the benefits will be felt in every corner of the planet.
One fundamental characteristic of Bhutan that differs from most of the world is through the way they measure the country’s progress. Instead of focusing on the commonly used GDP (Gross Domestic Product), Bhutan measures GNH (Gross National Happiness). In fact, an article by National Geographic explains, “King Jigme Singye Wangchuck developed his signature Gross National Happiness index based on four pillars: sustainable development, environmental protection, cultural preservation, and good governance”…Bhutan has also been awarded with being arguably the world’s happiest country.
But how does happiness correlate with being carbon negative? Well, it’s more like the country’s happiness stems from being carbon negative. Bhutan is very very green, 70% of the country is covered in trees, which leads into another crucial point to their constitution. Bhutan is the only country to mandate that at least 60% of the country must be protected under forrest cover, even logging was banned in 1999. As mentioned in previous articles, this determined effort to maintain healthy and abundant forests serves as a massive carbon sink, allowing the country to soak up much more than its own emissions, leaving room to help out their not so environmentally friendly neighbors.
The country’s devotion to environmental protection and a clean future does not end in their forests, Bhutan also almost entirely relies on hydropower for electricity generated by the country’s many rivers. In order to encourage clean energy and reduce its emissions the Bhutanese government offers free hydroelectric power to its people and free electricity to its rural farmers to decrease the use of wood fires. Bhutan is able to produce so much hydroelectricity that it exports the power to its neighbors, contributing to offsetting another 4.4 million tons of annual CO2 emissions. By 2025 the country is confident that increased hydroelectricity exports will let the country offset up to 22.4 million tons of CO2 per year in the region.
Although Bhutan has already accomplished major environmental feats the country is determined to continue to progress, by 2030 it plans to reach zero net green house emissions and to produce zero waste. In June 2015 volunteers set a world record in Bhutan by planting 49,672 trees in just one hour. The country is also is partnering with Nissan to provide the country with electric cars.
Unfortunately, although Bhutan is the greenest and most environmentally friendly country in the world it is already facing the consequences of climate change and remains especially vulnerable to global warming effects. The country’s location in the Himalayas has experienced floods and landslides from the continuously melting glaciers that not only affect the country’s nature and homes, but also their hydropower systems. The “underdeveloped” country has had a difficult time in avoiding these disasters, although I do not know of any developed country that could pause glaciers from melting?
In a 2016 ted talk TED Talk (I highly recommend watching), Bhutan’s Prime Minister explains the immense feats the country has accomplished and how they have manifested a sustainable and peaceful happiness in the region, he also calls to action the support and efforts of other countries so that the world may persevere through the climate emergency into a greener future.
People reading about Bhutan from their homes in developed countries may look at the country as a fantasy that the rest of the world could never catch up to, that the contrasting ways of life are too stark. However, I argue that Bhutan’s prime minister was not forcing his country’s way of life upon any other country, simply encouraging certain steps that are definitely feasible with proper investment.
In his eyes the world is facing a global climate emergency, that some communities are facing the brunt quicker and heavier than others, and it makes sense for priorities to be realigned for the protection of a livable way of life for all humans. The age where fossil fuels dominate the market and leaders hesitate to invest in greener energy needs to be left behind and countries that can afford to take massive action need to lead by example. Economic progress does not need to be forgotten, a cleaner future does not need to be one or the other, but choosing to neglect climate action will have irreversible and devastating consequences.
And I have to say I agree, hopefully the small country of Bhutan may inspire world powers like the United States to finally recognize what the future holds, and how we have the power to shape it.
References: https://www.nationalgeographic.com/travel/destinations/asia/bhutan/carbon-negative-country-sustainability/, https://www.cnn.com/2018/10/11/asia/bhutan-carbon-negative/index.html, https://www.gvi.co.uk/blog/bhutan-carbon-negative-country-world/