In the face of climate change and natural disasters, more and more countries and societies are taking steps to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and achieve carbon neutrality. However, in South Asia, in the Western Himalayas, there is a country which is not just carbon neutral, but carbon negative - which makes it the most environmentally friendly country in the world. And that country is “the Land of the Thunder Dragon” – the Kingdom of Bhutan.
A few words about Bhutan and being carbon negative
Bhutan is located on the slopes of the Himalayas between China and India with Thimphu as its capital city. Since 2008 the country has been a constitutional monarchy. Its economy is based on agriculture, forestry and tourism, and its export is dominated by selling hydroelectric power to India; in recent years, it has experienced intensive development and economic growth. One of the reasons for taking a closer look at Bhutan is its unique claim to carbon negativity. What does this mean and why is it so important?
Every action a human being takes has an impact on the environment, including the release of CO2 into the atmosphere, which causes temperatures to rise. In order to stop or at least slow down climate change, countries and individual citizens are trying to become carbon neutral, which means that the amount of CO2 emitted into the atmosphere should be the same as the amount of CO2 absorbed by the planet (which can be increased by initiatives like planting new trees). This is the reason why the European Green Deal was born – to make Europe a climate-neutral region. But Bhutan has achieved much more. It is a carbon negative country, which simply means that it absorbs more CO2 than it produces. Being carbon negative makes it an example to us all in the fight against climate change.
Many factors have contributed to Bhutan’s success in the field of environmental protection, but some in particular are worth noting. More than 70% of the country’s area is covered by forests, and what is more, these forests are protected under the Bhutanese Constitution, which mandates that the forest cover shall not be less than 60% of the country’s total area. Furthermore, the export of wood from Bhutan has been prohibited since 1999. The country has long relied on renewable sources of energy, which is produced mainly in hydroelectric plants powered by Bhutanese rivers. Mass tourism, which contributes to environmental degradation elsewhere in the world, does not exist in Bhutan either. Tourists staying in “the Land of the Thunder Dragon” are charged a daily fee, part of which goes towards free education, free medical care and other social services for the Bhutanese population.
The traditional culture and religion of the inhabitants of the Himalayan kingdom are also of paramount importance. Opposing the idea of consumerism, Bhutan uses “Gross National Happiness” (GNH) to measure its progress, rather than the standard Gross Domestic Product (GDP). GNH originates partly from the Buddhist traditions: avoidance of discontent through spiritual accomplishment, promotion of cultural values, respect for the environment, and freedom of choice (Zurick, 2006). In Bhutan, the environment and its protection are essential components of national development policy - not only economic, but also cultural and social development of individuals and society as a whole.
Economic growth, the COVID-19 pandemic and implications for the future
The economic growth that Bhutan is experiencing brings environmental consequences and requires redoubled efforts to safeguard natural heritage. For example, the number of petrol and diesel cars is on the rise in Bhutan; by 2050, more than 300 000 vehicles are expected, but the current number already accounts for most of Bhutan’s CO2 emissions (“Kuensel”, 2021). The country, like the rest of the world, is also still struggling with the COVID-19 pandemic, which hit the most vulnerable groups of people especially hard. And due to the increased demand for energy in households (a trend that is being observed worldwide), there have been power cuts during national lockdowns (Bhonsale, 2020).
The fight for a better tomorrow continues. Bhutan currently remains dependent on hydropower, but has the potential to use solar, wind and biomass energy in order to diversify its energy sector (“Renewables Readiness Assessment: Kingdom of Bhutan”, 2019). The first steps have already been taken. In collaboration with the UNDP, Bhutan’s Department of Renewable Energy, the Ministry of Economic Affairs, and the Bhutan Power Corporation (BPC) initiated a project to install photovoltaic cells that convert solar radiation into energy at the Rubesa Wind Farm in the Wangdue Phodrang county. Additionally, the 180 kW solar PV project, financed by the Government of Japan, is to be integrated into an already operational 600 kW wind power plant and put into service later this year (UNDP Bhutan, 2021). Projects like this are not only an opportunity for a greener future, but also a way to accelerate sustainable economic growth, as local contractors and workers are involved, which is especially important during the COVID-19 crisis (UNDP Bhutan, 2021).
Bhutan proves every day that what was previously thought impossible by many is, in fact, achievable. Concern for the environment and being carbon negative do not preclude economic and social progress; on the contrary, they complement each other. Bhutan still has a long way to go to achieve energy security through diversification of green energy sources. Similarly, the rest of the world has to work hard to make our future environmentally friendly. And whether it happens or not depends only on us.
Anna Oliwia Wierzbicka is from Poland. In 2020, she graduated with honours from the Beijing Language and Culture University with a Bachelor of Arts in Chinese Language. Currently I am pursuing the Erasmus Mundus Joint Master Degree in Euroculture at University of Strasbourg (France) and University of Groningen (the Netherlands).
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