How Does Bhutan Remain Carbon-Negative?

Lessons on sustainability from the remote Himalayan kingdom

Rice paddies on a hillside in Punakha valley

How Does Bhutan Remain Carbon-Negative?

These days, we are all racing to find sustainable sources of food, energy, and water. We are facing a glut of plastic and other pollutants in our atmosphere and we’re struggling to waste less in general. I recently spent time in one country that has figured out how to protect its environment and reap from it at the same time.

Landlocked between China and India, Bhutan has remained an independent state throughout its history, building a national identity around the tenets of Buddhism. From 1907, the country was ruled under a monarchy. In 2008, the fourth king, King Jigme Singye Wangchuck, instituted democracy, traveling from village to village, explaining the new constitution to the people of Bhutan.

“Gross Domestic Happiness”

That same king, in 1972, coined the term “Gross Domestic Happiness,” based on the idea that progress involves both economic and non-economic factors. It’s a holistic approach to measuring a country’s well-being, built around nine domains, including (among others) health, education, and ecological diversity and resilience. All nine pillars are weighted equally.

I knew this all before entering the country. I knew Bhutan was considered the “happiest country in the world” and that it had recently made headlines for being carbon-negative. But the view out the airplane window, while we were descending into the city of Paro, painted a much more vibrant picture. I could see green for miles, hills with tree cover in every direction and, further out, snow-capped mountains. Not a single skyscraper in sight.

Over the course of the next week, I began to understand how Bhutan has managed to weave sustainability into the fiber of its national identity. Here are a few takeaways:

Measured Modernization

The first elevator was brought to Bhutan 10 years ago, our tour guide Geleg told me. It was installed in a shopping center in Thimphu, the country’s capital. People used to go inside just to use them, annoying shopkeepers. Today, there are still no buildings above six stories in the country, by government mandate. The structures alternate between having red and green roofs in roughly equal part; green ones indicate private buildings while red means government-owned.

Police officers direct traffic in Thimphu, the capital of Bhutan.

Also, the country still operates with no traffic lights. According to Geleg, the government installed one in 1999, but when no one understood how to use it, they went back to roundabouts with officers directing traffic. This not only creates jobs, but responds to current traffic patterns; no one has to wait very long to move.

Most of the labor force still consists of subsistence farmers. The country exports potatoes and apples to nearby India and Bangladesh, but later import apple juice and potato products at a markup.

Traveling through Bhutan is like having one foot in the past and another in the present.

Modernization is there, but measured. Even tourism is regulated. While there is an international airport, only Bhutanese airlines (two of them) can operate there.

Sustainable Tourism

In 1974, in an effort to bring Bhutanese culture to the rest of the world, the country began accepting tourists. Only a couple hundred visitors went that year. That number has since risen to over 200,000.

To control the effect of tourism, independent tourists are not permitted to enter Bhutan. Everyone must come through an approved tour operator on a prepackaged trip and spend at least $250 per day. As Geleg noted, the goal is “low volume, high impact” tourism, and to “try to bring good-quality tourists to country.” The country took note from nearby Nepal, whose environment and culture continues to suffer after opening up to independent travelers worldwide.

Currently, Indian tourists (which account for 50% of visitors) don’t pay the steep tourist tariff, but the government is working on instituting one. While tourists from nearby are beneficial for local hotels and the overall economy (tourism being the second-largest economic force there), the country has felt its impact on the environment, mostly by way of strewn garbage.

These days, many young Bhutanese are entering the tourism field, taking the three-month exam for their guided license. As tourism increases, Geleg said, the country shows no sign of changing its policies.

Social Forestry

Buddhism, practiced by 80% of the country’s residents, holds a high level of respect for forests. Monks, for example, are forbidden from cutting down trees. It’s no wonder, then, that Bhutan’s government has taken a refreshingly forward-thinking approach to them. Today, 72% of Bhutan is forest; the government, following a ruling from the fourth king, has mandated that 60% remain that way indefinitely.

Every year, on June 2, the same day as the fourth king’s coronation, the country celebrates Social Forestry Day, where hundreds of thousands of trees are planted by Bhutanese citizens.

Spanish moss acts as a natural air filter, collecting water, dust, and debris.

On June 2, 2015, Bhutan set a Guinness world record by planting 49,672 trees in an hour.

In honor of the birth of Jigme Namgyel Wangchuck, heir to the throne, volunteers planted 108,000 trees.

Tree clearing is still a threat so Bhutan tightly regulates how people use them. Geleg said that citizens have to request firewood or materials for building houses from the government. The forestry department marks which trees can be cut. The fine for cutting trees without authorization? Plant a hundred trees in its place.

More cement and brick materials are being used for construction in bigger cities. Other areas use clay or stone. Bamboo, a reusable material, is often used for construction projects.

Powered by Water

With glacial water running through countless valleys in Bhutan, hydropower has become a profitable, sustainable, boost for the economy. In fact, it’s the country’s #1 export, with over 70% of hydropower going to India, whose loans have largely supported these projects.

It is estimated that Bhutan has the potential to generate 30,000 megawatts of hydropower, ten times more energy than it is currently harnessing.

Five dams are operate around Bhutan, all built as run-of-river stations. Run-of-river station don’t require reservoirs, which reduces flooding and greenhouse gas emissions. This also means that power generation is at the mercy of the environment, getting lighter during the winter months.

Directionally Holistic

Of course, no country has a perfect record. For instance, Bhutan led the plastic bag ban over twenty years ago, but continues to look for new ways to enforce the policy. This year, the National Environment Commission will begin implementing fines for businesses using them. It remains a problem to be solved.

Happiness, though, is a tricky word to use. It’s subjective and individualistic, whereas a society like Bhutan’s seems to be more concerned with the wellbeing of the community. Whether it’s the happiest country or not, Bhutan’s values are certainly in the right place with regards to development, by introducing the GNH Index in the first place.

Where it does excel, Bhutan makes a fine example of how to build a society where environmental protection is paramount. Whether its ways can be adapted by larger, more developed countries is up for debate. Surely, the country’s environmental advantage comes, partially, from its size, remote location, traditional ways, and Buddhist roots. Bhutan’s values reflect a thoughtful, holistic approach to the country’s general well-being.


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