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Bhutan is the world’s only carbon negative country, so how did they do it?

Bhutan has stepped onto the international stage as the first country to become carbon negative. Bhutan is a small land-locked country in the Himalayas situated between India and China, with a population of approximately 790,000 people, and a bold promise to remain carbon neutral for all time. Bhutan is not only carbon neutral, but carbon negative.

‘Carbon negative’ is a neat phrase, but an even more extraordinary feat.

Effectively, it means the carbon emissions the country produces are not only offset, but are now in the negative due to the generation and exportation of renewable energy.

Recent figures show that Bhutan generates only 2.2 million tonnes of carbon dioxide (CO2), but the forest sequesters more than three times that amount. This means they are a net carbon sink for more than four million tonnes of CO2 each year. Additionally, Bhutan exports most of the renewable electricity generated by their fast-flowing rivers, which offsets about six million tonnes of CO2. At this rate, by 2020, Bhutan will be exporting enough electricity to offset 17 million tonnes of CO2 annually.

It is important to recognise that Bhutan is a small, non-industrialised nation and their environmental method would undoubtedly see challenges at a larger scale.

Moreover, Bhutan is situated at number 132 on the Human Development Index, whilst Australia is at number 2. This demonstrates the fact that comparison between the two countries can be problematic. However, these considerations do not reduce the huge effort and achievement Bhutan has made to ensure environmental sustainability is at the forefront of their balanced political agenda. The Prime Minister of Bhutan Tshering Tobgay assured in a recent TED talk that by working as a global community in partnership, becoming a carbon neutral country is certainly attainable.

Prime Minister of Bhutan Tshering Tobgay

A more holistic view of development

Tobgay emphasises the prioritisation of happiness before economic growth as the key driver of the nation’s social and environmental progress. Unlike most countries that use the Gross Domestic Product Index to measure development, Bhutan uses the Gross National Happiness Index, a measure of development with values. This vision aims to improve the happiness and well-being of the people environmentally, socio-culturally and economically. In a global society obsessed with economic measures, this model provides a revolutionary and holistic understanding of development. It recognises the importance of economic growth, but asserts that it must not undermine the nation’s distinct culture or pristine environment.

Tobgay articulated Bhutan’s commitment to this holistic understanding of development; “We have worked tirelessly to develop a country balancing economic growth carefully with social development, environmental sustainability and cultural preservation.” Within this national framework, and since the environment plays an integral part in people’s overall happiness, environmental protection is prioritised rather than cast aside.

Constitutional measures in conjunction with grassroots empowerment

Protected areas are at the core of Bhutan’s national carbon neutral strategy. Bhutan’s constitution now demands that a minimum of 60 per cent of the country’s total land area remains under forest cover for all time. Currently 72 per cent of Bhutan is under forest cover, and more than half the country is protected as national parks, nature reserves and wildlife sanctuaries - all connected by a network of biological corridors. Further, resources are provided to help communities who live in the parks manage the forests well, adapt to climate change and live harmoniously with the environment. This helps to prevent poaching, mining, hunting and pollution in the parks. By constitutionally imposing these measures, as well as empowering citizens, Bhutan is a carbon sink that limits its generation of CO2 to only 2.2 million tonnes a year.

Commitment to renewable energy and sustainability

Bhutan utilises their extensive river sources to generate large amounts of renewable hydro energy, propelling the nation to be carbon negative. The government’s commitment to environmental protection is further evident in their provision of free electricity to rural farmers, investment in sustainable transport, subsidisation of electric vehicles and energy lights, the transition to an entirely paperless government, and national programs such as Clean Bhutan and Green Bhutan.

Bill Barrett, Wikimedia, A view of Kerr dam with the gates at full open

Why should Australians care?

If the whole world lived and consumed the way Australia does, it would need more than five other planets to sustain it. Australia generates over 536 million tonnes of CO2 a year, as opposed to Bhutan’s negative output. While the significant difference in population and industrialisation between Australia and Bhutan skews this comparison, it highlights the need to live as responsible global citizens. Research reveals that countries that contribute the least carbon emissions face the reality of the most devastating impacts. Countries like Bhutan, Kiribati and other low-emitting nations are disproportionately subject to the forefront of climate impacts, such as flash flooding. Australia’s inaction on the climate crisis will ultimately facilitate the loss of lives, homes, livelihoods, land, and in turn, languages and cultures. Our stance on the climate crisis isn’t just about us. Australia is part of an interconnected global community and needs to be a responsible actor in that community.

Bhutan provides a tangible example of seeking to balance the care for environmental sustainability, preservation of culture and the economic growth of a nation. Promising to remain carbon neutral for all time is something all nations can strive for. The Prime Minister of Bhutan Tshering Tobgay urges the global community, including Australia, to work in partnership as we fight climate change together.

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