By Shyamal Sinha
Bhutan is arguably the world’s happiest country. It’s also one of the greenest. That’s no coincidence. In fact, King Jigme Singye Wangchuck developed his signature Gross National Happiness index based on four pillars: sustainable development, environmental protection, cultural preservation, and good governance. Other countries have taken note, since the Himalayan kingdom is not only carbon neutral, but carbon negative.
While the world scrambles to offset the increasingly extreme effects of anthropogenic climate change on weather patterns, food production, ecosystems, and animal populations, the Buddhist Kingdom of Bhutan last year became the first and only carbon-negative country on the planet. A living example and model that there are better, more workable approaches to economic development and sustainability, Bhutan did something every country has the power to do: it stopped destroying its environment and started protecting it.
Remote and landlocked, perched in the rarified air of the eastern Himalayas, Bhutan is regularly ranked among the happiest countries in the world. With a population of just 736,000, according to government data for 2017, it is also one of the world’s smallest and least industrialized countries, yet it has significant experience in maintaining the delicate balance of managing economic growth in a sustainable manner, famously encapsulated in its conservative “Gross National Happiness” (GNH) approach to economic development.
The kingdom’s high level of forest cover—around 72 per cent—means that not only has Bhutan met its pledge to remain carbon neutral, it has become one of the Earth’s rare but essential carbon sinks, with its forests absorbing more carbon dioxide than the country produces. Bhutan produces some 2.2 million tonnes of carbon-dioxide every year, but absorbs in excess of 6 million tonnes. The country has also banned logging for export and seeks to be 100 per cent organic by 2020.
It is also the world’s last remaining Vajrayana Buddhist nation. The spiritual tradition is embedded in the very consciousness and culture of this remote land, where it has flourished with an unbroken history that dates back to its introduction from Tibet by the eighth century Buddhist master Padmasambhava, also known as Guru Rinpoche. As a result, sustainability has become a part of Bhutan’s national identity.
The philosophy of GNH was introduced in the late 1970s by the country’s fourth king, Jigme Singye Wangchuk, drawing inspiration from the kingdom’s traditional Buddhist culture. An alternative to traditional metrics for measuring national development, such as gross national product (GNP) or gross domestic product (GDP), GNH is founded on four underlying principles or “pillars:” good governance, sustainable socio-economic development, the preservation and promotion of culture, and environmental conservation.
While not opposed to material development or economic progress, GNH rejects the pursuit of economic growth as the ultimate good, instead seeking to cultivate a more holistic approach to balanced development and societal well-being, translating cultural and social priorities into developmental goals to create a happier, more equitable society.
“Our enlightened monarchs have worked tirelessly to develop our country, balancing economic growth carefully with social development, environmental sustainability, and cultural preservation, all within the framework of good governance,” Bhutan’s Prime Minister Lyonchhen Dasho Tshering Tobgay said in his 2016 TED Talk, in which he also conceded that, like every country, Bhutan also grapples with significant challenges and problems, both economic and social: “The reality is that we are a small underdeveloped country doing our best to survive. But we’re doing okay; we’re surviving. In fact, we’re thriving.”
There are a host of reasons behind Bhutan’s environmental successes—the country generates and exports clean renewable electricity, and invests in green industries and organic farming practices. Other government initiatives to encourage sustainable development include:
• Mandating a minimum forest cover of 60 per cent in the country’s constitution.
• The promotion of hydroelectric power as an alternative to fossil fuels.
• A cooperation with Nissan to distribute electric cars, with a promise more to come.
• Subsidies for LED lighting, electric public transportation, and electric vehicles.
• Providing rural communities with free electricity to discourage the use of wood as a fuel.
• Plans for the government to go completely paperless.
“We manage this because we use our limited resource very carefully, and because we stay faithful to the core mission of GNH, which is ‘development with values.’” Tshering Tobgay emphasized. “Our economy is small and we must strengthen it. Economic growth is important. But that economic growth must not come from undermining our unique culture, or our pristine environment.”
Bhutan has a delicate tightrope to navigate, however. Sandwiched between the uneasy political rivalry of economic powerhouses China and India. “The ratio of people to land mass—it’s about the same size as Switzerland with just 1/10th the population,” noted Erin Levi, author of the Bradt Travel Guide to Bhutan. “Its slow path to development—the first road was only built in the 1960s, which also means people were very slow to get cars.” (National Geographic)
“Now, however, for the first time there is rush hour traffic in Thimphu, the only capital in Asia that has no traffic lights.” (National Geographic)
Just under 75 per cent of Bhutan’s population identify as Buddhists, according to data for 2010 from the Washington, DC-based Pew Research Center, with Hinduism accounting for the majority of the remainder. Most of Bhutan’s Buddhists follow either the Drukpa Kagyu or the Nyingma school of Vajrayana Buddhism.
There are many reasons Bhutan is carbon negative. Aside from its protected forests, it has won world records for planting the most trees per hour