What can one of the smallest countries in the world teach us about environmentalism?

In the Himalayas sandwiched between China and India there is a tiny country of around 800,000 people. You may never have even heard of it, yet the Kingdom of Bhutan is making waves in the environmentalist world. This is due to it being the only country in the world to claim a carbon negative status.

To have this status, Bhutan is capturing more CO2 than it gives out. The country generates around 2.2 million tons of CO2 a year, but forests take in more than 3 times this amount. They also offset CO2 emissions from neighbouring countries through the hydroelectricity that they sell to them. In a TED Talks, Bhutan’s Prime Minister, Tshering Tobgay, claimed that they offset about 6 million tons of CO2 from their neighbours. This is set to rise to 17 million tons by 2020!

This is an incredible achievement but arguably its carbon negative status could be down to Bhutan’s small size, and the fact that the majority of the workforce is involved in agriculture or forestry (56.3%). Surely a country like the UK, with a population of around 65 million and a higher proportion of the workforce dedicated to industry, couldn’t achieve figures like these? Yet, Bhutan is making huge efforts to retain their carbon negative status. As a small, land-locked country in a mountainous environment, they are very susceptible to the effects of climate change and so they know more than others the importance of reducing our carbon footprint. There is a lot we could learn from their efforts to keep this low.

In their ‘Intended Nationally Determined Contribution’, Bhutan sets out its plan to counteract the rapidly growing emissions from its energy and industrial sectors. Currently its level of forest cover stands at 70.46% (with forests taking in around 6.3 million tons of CO2,) and they have pledged that this will not drop below 60%. It has banned export logging and promotes sustainable forest management to maintain this.

Whilst conserving their carbon sinks is a priority, they are also committed to a low emission development pathway to mitigate their growing emissions. One area of focus is for more efficient transport systems. They have partnered with Nissan to provide electric cars and Tshering Tobgay eventually wants all of the country’s vehicles to be electric powered. Currently, almost all of the clean energy they export to India goes on funding fossil fuel imports for their transport sector and Tobgay wants to reduce these imports by 70%. As well, they are committed to improving mass transit and exploring alternative transport methods such as rail, water and gravity ropeways. Improving mass transit will encourage people to travel in these ways and cut down on personal transport use and therefore CO2 emissions. Perhaps here in the UK, where we focus so much on improving the efficiency of personal modes of transport, we should also place greater importance on increasing the use of alternative transport networks.

Other areas of focus include sustainable livestock farming e.g. organic livestock farming and expansion of biogas production, and sustainable agricultural practices (Bhutan aims to grow 100% organic food by 2020). Also, improving the manufacturing process and creating a green and sustainable economy through investments in cleaner technology,

efficient energy and environmental management. The infrastructure for waste management will be improved and the conversion of waste to resources will be enhanced in their commitment to have zero waste by 2030.

Alongside, they will continue to improve the country’s clean hydropower development to negate all carbon emissions within Bhutan.

Bhutan is classed by the UN as a Least Developed Country yet, despite not having the funding and resources that we have here in the UK, they are ahead of us in their efforts to reduce carbon emissions. Although the UK is a long way off being carbon negative, we can learn from them and increase our efforts into finding more efficient transport systems, preserving and increasing our forest cover, and developing alternative clean energy supplies. Our countries may be different socially and economically, but that does not mean that our attitude to global warming should not be the same.

Sadie Sweetland is studying for an MSc in Science Communication at Imperial College London

Banner Images: Bhutan wonders, Wikimedia Commons

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