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Carbon negative: Bhutan as a climate leader?

Countless nations have set ambitious carbon targets for the near future, with many aiming to go net zero by 2050. But what about the countries that are already leading the way?

Bhutan is a South Asian nation with a population of just under 800,000 and is a member of a small (though elite) club of nations that have achieved a carbon-negative status. Joining Panama and Suriname as one of only three nations to have a net-negative emission of carbon, Bhutan stands way ahead of many other countries as a climate leader. So what can we learn from the kingdom’s achievements?

Bhutan absorbs far more carbon than it emits

The nation’s success largely comes down to effective and well-enforced targets which have protected the natural environment. After a rise in logging in the 1990s, the Bhutanese government mandated in 2008 that at least 60% of its lands must remain under forest cover. Accompanied by a crackdown on illegal timber operations, the nation was able to get this level up to 71%.

In 1999, the nation also developed a project focusing on ‘biological corridors’ connecting protected areas of land and allowing wildlife to traverse freely. Alongside hydropower energy sources generated from its rivers and organic farming, this means that Bhutan absorbs far more carbon than it emits.

In large part, Bhutan’s climate ambition comes down to its long-standing belief in the Gross National Happiness index (GNH), which places happiness ahead of GDP in measuring growth. This has ensured that its environmental protection strategies have been at the forefront of policymaking. Yet this hasn’t thwarted its progress, with poverty levels falling and the nation on track to exit developing nation status.

The good news for the nation is that its neighbours seem to be listening. The city of Kunisaki in Japan has committed to becoming carbon-negative by 2050, with plans in place to introduce more carbon-absorbing trees. And it is not just on biodiversity that Bhutan has led the way. The nation has also implemented stringent restrictions on travel in attempts to keep emissions down, imposing a $200 ‘sustainable development fee’ for those visiting the country.

However, it is not all positive news. With the nearby Himalayas experiencing rapidly warming temperatures and the new glacial rivers imposing on its lands, Bhutan remains highly vulnerable to climate change. Meanwhile, many other nations, including nearby India and China, continue to evade climate-related goals and targets.  

This does not stop the nation from attempting to do more than its part

There are also questions over whether Bhutan’s prioritisation of climate goals could hamper its economy. Manufacturing has experienced little growth in recent years, and the development of climate technologies has proved costly. Perhaps, this is a sign that Bhutan cannot tackle the issue alone.

Nevertheless, this does not stop the nation from attempting to do more than its part. Whilst Bhutan has already made huge progress, it remains bold in its ambitions to further drive down its environmental impact. The kingdom aims to be net-zero on greenhouse gas emissions by 2030 by increasing its use of clean energy sources. Other initiatives include setting up a partnership with car manufacturer Nissan to replace all current petrol and diesel cars with a new electric fleet, as well as offering farmers the use of free electricity to cut down on the burning of wood.

All its projects are also crucially backed up by long-term funding, with the ‘Bhutan for Life’ programme supported by private donors alongside government capital. Its long-term time frame allows for potential deficits, gives time to finance research and development, and supports local communities.

Although the South Asian country is somewhat of a model pupil, it is true that its characteristics don’t match those of many other nations aiming to slash emissions. Relatively small and non-industrialised, it is able to enforce its measures with much more rigour and close attention than larger countries such as the United States, Britain, or Australia are able to.

But by placing the environment at the core of their ambitions, Bhutan has helped pave the way for what’s possible when climate is put first.


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