The Paris Climate Accord has recently been in the news heavily, following Donald Trump’s announcement that the US would leave the agreement. While that story makes its rounds of the global media sphere, when it comes to the Bhutanese people, the biggest story about the Agreement is from when it was signed. Bhutan’s pledge at the talks was judged, “most ambitious.” And the country was heavily commended for being the most carbon-negative country in the world. Indeed, Bhutan’s forests absorb three times as much carbon as its people produces.
How did Bhutan achieve this? The answer to that question is a mixed bag – with some aspects that may seem controversial.
Constitutional-Protection Bhutan’s constitution guarantees that for all of eternity, there will be at least 60% forest coverage within the boundaries of the country. And the reality is much better than that normative promise. Recent studies show Bhutan has at least 73% coverage. And with the country’s population tiny, its economy based on hydroelectricity and tourism, it seems that save for a transcendence in public policy, that promise, and the forests, will be maintained for many more decades.
Public Policy – GNH
Bhutan’s two biggest exports are hydroelectricity and tourism. While both these industries have some negative impacts on the environment, there is a certain way Bhutan does them that makes them healthier. In tourism study textbooks, Bhutan’s model stands alone on its own under the section of “high value, low impact.” This phrase means that tourists who come to visit the country are faced with great inflexibility and cannot do too much harm to the environment (or the culture). Bhutan’s methods at clean hydroelectricity come directly from its guiding philosophy of Gross National Happiness (GNH). Here is a basic idea of how this philosophy works as an economic index. If there is a project proposal from anyone – especially the government – that proposal is judged to see how it affects four facets: governance, socioeconomic development, culture, and the environment. The proposal is measured through the help of 72 indicators and scored. Based on its score, the project either passes of fails. Therefore, if there is a project, like a hydroelectric station at a new location, and it is projected to improve the economy without affecting culture too much, if the project scores negatively on its impact on the environment, it fails to pass. By making environment such a key part is measuring policy, Bhutan ensures that the environment and its conservation never takes a backseat.
Buddhism, with a little Boenism.
While Bhutan is famous for its Buddhism, an investigation into it shows a more-than-the-average-Buddhist regard for the environment. There certainly is a lot of Buddhism dedicated to how the natural environment is important to the mind and Buddhahood. But, the reverence that Bhutanese people pay to their lakes, forests, and other natural occurrences is odd. This is because unlike the nontheistic Buddhism found in other countries, Bhutan’s is a mix of its old Bon culture and Vajrayana. Therefore, every tree, every boulder, every lake, every valley, and every hill has a guardian deity to offend who is to invite their wrath. This makes Bhutanese people more careful of harming the environment.
Lack of an industrial past
With all of that being said – all of which make it seem like it was always a collective plan by every Bhutanese to conserve the environment, there also needs to be said, the controversial explanation for Bhutan’s well preserved natural environment. In the Bhutanese, agricultural glossary is the word “Tseri”, which means shifting cultivation. The presence of the word suggests a presence of the activity. So, it is implied that in Bhutan’s history, there was a practice of burning down forests for agriculture. And while data don’t exist on how widespread the practice was, by some oral accounts, it was very rampant. Therefore, to say that Bhutanese people have never tried to destroy their environment would also be false. The truth is that all the other factors written above exist in other countries, maybe not in combination or in the same form, but certainly in part and in similar forms. A big reason for Bhutan’s forests right now is the lack of an industrial past. Logging – for private and commercial consumption is still a big industry in rural Bhutan, but the market for the products was never too big or too profitable for industries to be built. So, not all of the reasons for Bhutan’s pristine forests and carbon negative status are pure, but that takes nothing away from what it is.
And with the whole world (excluding DJT’s USA) seemingly united, Bhutan’s models of public policy and social conscience can serve as a good example for these unified nations. There certainly is a lot for Bhutan to do for itself. Its promise to equate the importance of economy and environment might have worked when the country qualified as a LIC (least income countries) and access to foreign aid, and had a small population. But as the country graduates into lower-middle class and loses many foreign aid packages, and as its population grows, it needs to find a way to combine the two. To build a green economy; so robust and profitable that it serves as yet another exemplary model for other countries. While government and state actors are crucial in this fight to reduce and reverse climate change, my belief is that at some point, businesses, entrepreneurs, and other economic agents will become more proactive. When that happens, Bhutan’s useful public policy would be less powerful than an entrepreneur who built their business on the back of a green economy.