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Bhutan’s carbon-negative status – a model for other nations

A strict policy of ensuring that forests blanket at least 60% of the land mass has greened this nation

A view of Tjimphu Towers in Bhutan: A statue of Buddha stands at the far end overlooking Thimphu, the capital city – PATHMA NABAN

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Even though Bhutan is often overshadowed by its much larger neighbours, China and India, it has not escaped attention.   

Despite its small size – just 800,000 people living within 15,000 square miles – Bhutan is one of the world’s greenest countries. A landlocked nation, it has earned the coveted distinction of being the world’s only carbon-negative country, ie it removes more carbon from the atmosphere than it emits.

Bhutan emits about 2.2 million tonnes of carbon annually, yet its forests – acting as a carbon sink – absorb three times this amount.

The majority of Bhutanese work in forestry and agriculture. The country emits less than 2.5 million tons of carbon dioxide (CO2) every year. In contrast, Luxembourg, about the same size as Bhutan but with fewer people, emits four times more.

Dense forests shroud most of Bhutan. About three-quarters of these woodlands act as a natural carbon sink, absorbing vast amounts of CO2. This is in sharp contrast to its neighbours, China and India, which are major CO2 emitters.

Bhutan’s serene, mystical landscape: Pine trees grace a hill slope – PATHMA NABAN

My friend Pathma Naban and his wife visited Bhutan in June 2019. While touring enchanting tourist spots, Naban noted several policies that helped Bhutan attain carbon-negative status:

  • Bhutan’s ‘high-quality’, low-volume (or high-value, low-impact) tourism – The country imposes a high visa levy of $200-250 per person per day to limit international tourist arrivals
  • A minimum of three in a group sharing a vehicle (for single travellers, a levy of $50 per person per day is imposed) – This policy slashes the use of vehicles (lowering carbon emission from vehicles), tourist facilities (accommodation, food and drinks) and water consumption 
  • To curb emissions, Bhutan bars foreign airlines from operating within the country – Only Drukair-Royal Bhutan Airlines, owned by the state and a Bhutan-based private company, is allowed
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Bhutan’s breathtaking panorama – serene, unscathed landscapes, interspersed by the sounds of its rich wildlife – will mesmerise any environmental tourist. Placid rivers grace the landscape of this eco-friendly country. Their clean turquoise waters gushing from the Himalayan mountains, against brilliant blue skies on the horizon, enthralled my friend Naban. 

Punakha Dzong, a fortress built in 1637 to serve as the administrative centre of the region – PATHMA NABAN

The highways are clean as well. Naban noticed volunteers picking up rubbish during an intercity journey from Thimphu to Punakha. Similarly, all the places of worship he visited were spotless.

Naban attributes Bhutan’s carbon-negative achievement to a strict policy of ensuring that forests blanket at least 60% of the land mass.

Bhutan’s goal is to be an environmentally friendly country at all times. It uses hydroelectric power to reduce its dependence on fossil fuels. Incredibly, it has banned logging exports. This is all part of the “Clean Bhutan and Green Bhutan” initiative to beautify the country.  

Small wonder Bhutan ranks among the world’s happiest countries. The reigning monarch, 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 does not seek not to match its more industrialised neighbours’ economic clout. Instead, the country has charted its own unique path – cherishing its culture and people against a stunningly clean and green backdrop.  

Stunning backdrop: A close-up of ‘Tigers’ Nest’ – PATHMA NABAN

If only other nations could be carbon-negative like Bhutan or at least carbon-neutral like Denmark by 2050, we would have made an enormous leap towards a cleaner, healthier planet.   

We can achieve this if all nations do their best to cut carbon emissions and curb climate change. This would be a remarkable legacy for posterity: the message we would send future generations is that we cared enough for their wellbeing.

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With grateful thanks to Pathma Naban for his input and photos

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Benedict Lopez was director of the Malaysian Investment Development Authority in Stockholm and economics counsellor at the Malaysian embassy there in 2010-2014. He covered all five Nordic countries in the course of his work. A pragmatic optimist and now an Aliran member, he believes Malaysia can provide its people with the same benefits and privileges found in the Nordic countries - not a far-fetched dream but one that he hopes will be realised in his lifetime
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