Beyond carbon neutral – What the world should learn from Bhutan

By Orion McCarthy 

no plan B COP21

The Eiffel tower was lit up with climate themed messages during the COP21 climate summit in Paris. Photo credit:

WITH the conclusion of the historic climate summit in Paris, the world now has a concrete framework for tackling climate change. The agreement, which requires countries to submit their own emission reduction plans every five years, encourages a diverse approach to climate mitigation over time.

The emission reduction plans submitted so far by 186 nations are projected to collectively limit global warming to only 2.7°C. With an aspirational target of 1.5°C of warming set by the Paris Agreement, most countries will have to regularly update their pledges with increasingly rigorous promises to stay on track. In the long term, many nations may have to go carbon neutral to prevent rapid climate change.

From big, wealthy powerhouses to small, developing states, nearly every nation emits more carbon dioxide than it absorbs. Substantially more, in most cases.


Flags of countries that make up ‘Vulnerable 20’ a group of nations most at risk from the impact of climate change. Many climate pioneers are small countries that would stand to lose a lot from climate change, or countries with substantial renewable resources. Bhutan’s flag is at the bottom left. Photo credit:

For most nations, bridging the gap between business-as-usual emissions and carbon neutrality will be quite challenging. To do so effectively, countries must seek out climate success stories and emulate the strategies pioneered by today’s most environmentally progressive countries.

Some countries, such as Costa Rica and Iceland, are on the cusp of carbon neutrality. Others, such as Norway and New Zealand, pledge carbon neutrality by 2030. But the most impressive success story lies hidden amongst the snow capped peaks of the Himalayas, where centuries of tradition make conservation a priority.


Bhutan is the only country in the world that absorbs more carbon than it emits, making it a net carbon sink. Photo credit: Natural High Safaris.


Photo credit: Operation World.

This is Bhutan.

The ancient kingdom sandwiched between India and China is Asia’s Switzerland. It’s a small, mountainous, and incredibly isolated nation, with a distinct Buddhist culture that the country’s leaders work hard to preserve. All but isolated from the outside world until the 1960s, Bhutan still places limits on tourism and acted to legalize television as recently as 1999.

Now, as the Kingdom enters the 21st century, the focus of Bhutan has shifted from cultural conservation to environmental conservation.

Bhutan is an all around environmental role model. The climate commitments of Bhutan go beyond carbon neutral; it is the only nation to absorb more carbon than it emits, making Bhutan a net carbon sink. The country’s impressive environmental credentials don’t stop there. Bhutan’s entire agricultural sector has committed to going organic, the government has promised an additional 20MW of renewable electricity capacity by 2020, and 97% of the country’s electricity generation already comes from hydropower.

If world leaders are truly serious about mending the climate and living more sustainably, the environmental policies of Bhutan should be studied and replicated.

Not all of Bhutan’s policy successes are widely reproducible; unique cultural beliefs, centuries of isolation, and abundant hydropower resources all play a roll in Bhutan’s ultimate sustainability. Still, the following three major, broadly applicable lessons from Bhutan could significantly improve the prospects for a sustainable world.

1. Forests are Important

Globally, forests sequester 4 billion tons of carbon each year. However, deforestation releases over 70% of that sequestered carbon back into the atmosphere. Photo credit: National Geographic.

After the ocean, forests act as the main sink for carbon. On a global scale, forests sequester 4 billion tons of carbon annually, removing 60% of fossil fuel related emissions from the atmosphere each year. However, much of these gains are offset by deforestation, which releases the sequestered carbon back into the atmosphere. This makes forest preservation essential for combatting climate change.

For Bhutan, a combination of low carbon emissions and extensive forest cover make the country a net carbon sink. The small country absorbs three times more carbon than it emits.


42% of Bhutan is protected by 10 national parks and wildlife sanctuaries, connected by wildlife corridors (light green). Photo credit: Druk Asia.

Unlike other developing nations with high forest cover, the future of Bhutan’s forests is politically secure.  Forests cover three quarters of Bhutan’s area, and deforestation is prevented through a network of national parks, which protect 42% of the country. If that wasn’t enough, Bhutan’s constitution mandates that 60% of the country remain forested indefinitely. By preserving forests in such a way, Bhutan has created a reliable, long-term strategy for offsetting carbon.

The benefits of forest conservation extend beyond carbon sequestration. Healthy forests prevent erosion and promote watershed health, keeping river flow regular and pristine. Hydropower is Bhutan’s major source of electricity and revenue, so healthy rivers with predictable flow rates are essential to the Bhutanese economy. Forest conservation also helps to safeguard biodiversity, and the nation’s network of wildlife corridors ensures the survival of iconic species such as tigers, elephants, and snow leopards, as they move about the country.

2. Plan Ahead

Sustainability isn’t just an idea in Bhutan, it’s integrated into every aspect of daily life and future development plans.

By embracing organic farming as a nationwide policy, Bhutan’s agricultural sector operates in a more sustainable manner, preserving the land as well as farmer’s livelihoods for the future. The country’s ecotourism sector uses a quality over quantity approach, accepting fewer tourists than other countries to minimize the sector’s environmental footprint while affording the few tourists more opportunities.

But in the larger scheme, Bhutan has secured a sustainable source of funding for conservation protection that will last for generations. Bhutan for Life, a transition fund established through a partnership with WWF, is a revolutionary mechanism for conservation.

To attract donors, Bhutan for Life uses the concept of a single closing, where donors commit funds but only pay if a target funding threshold is reached, protecting investors from wasting money on underfunded projects. In addition, Bhutan for Life covers an extended period of time, paying out once conservation goals are met. The funding structure encourages sustainability and makes investment in Bhutan a low risk, high reward venture for wealthy individuals and industrialized nations.

 3. Happiness Matters

Even as it leads the world in environmental and climate success stories, Bhutan is still a developing country. Yet it ranks among the happiest countries in the world, beating many industrialized nations with strong GDPs and high standards of living.

This apparent discrepancy arises from Bhutan’s development goals, which are geared towards promoting wellbeing and happiness in addition to economic growth.

Most nations measure progress with GDP, but Bhutan measures it using the Gross National Happiness Index, or GNH, instead. Unlike GDP, which measures progress solely in economic terms, GNH seeks to quantify wellbeing using multiple metrics, such as environmental health, good governance, and community vitality, in addition to economic progress.

It is important to note that prioritizing happiness doesn’t have to compromise of GDP growth. In 2007, Bhutan had the second fastest growing economy in the world, despite policies and development goals based on GNH growth.


Photo credit: Huffington Post.

The Way Forward

Bhutan has made enviable progress in environmental policy and sustainable living. The success of the Bhutanese people should be duplicated wherever possible, and key messages about living in harmony with the environment should be adopted.

  • With an area of forest the size of Alabama lost each year, the world must act to preserve existing forests and to reforest degraded areas.  On an individual level you can act to plant trees, either in your own yard or in public spaces with a certified organization.
  • Industrialized nations should invest in the future of developing nations, specifically in sustainable development, renewable resources, and green infrastructure to avoid increased carbon emissions as developing nations grow. You can invest in your own future by opting for energy efficient appliances and rooftop solar panels. They may be more expensive up front, but they pay off in the long run.
  • Finally, a focus on multiple societal metrics rather than just economic growth has greatly improved the prospect for environmental conservation as well as overall happiness in Bhutan. Other countries could benefit from a more holistic approach to policy decisions, and should consider adopting GNH as a companion metric to GDP.


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One comment

  1. […] failing to reach an agreement at the 2009 summit in Copenhagen, the historic 2015 Paris climate summit finally produced a concrete framework for tackling climate […]


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