Located on the southern slopes of the eastern Himalayas, much of the mountainous landlocked Kingdom of Bhutan quietly lies under a vast forest cover, carefully tending to its national parks, reserves and protected areas. Isolated from the world until the 1960s, Bhutan has a largely unspoilt natural environment and cultural heritage, and is determined to keep it that way. Dedication to the maintenance of its biodiversity has led to international acclaim and while its natural heritage is mainly intact, future challenges are already being addressed.
Like all countries, Bhutan is faced with population pressures as well as modernisation, mineral extraction, urbanisation and industrialisation, and the infrastructure associated with economic and social development. Implementation of policies set up to safeguard the rich and diverse environment involve developing and supporting sustainable livelihoods in rural areas, and in areas where populated areas overlap with protected lands, an insurance scheme has been created to protect both human and animal inhabitants.
This careful protection and nurturing of the natural environment has led to Bhutan being one of the few countries in the world to have negative carbon emissions. According to recent figures, the country emits around 1.5 million tonnes of carbon annually, while its forests absorb over 6 million tonnes. Despite pressing social and economic needs, the country is adamant that it will continue to remain carbon neutral, and help to keep the planet safe for life to continue.
As the only country whose largest export is renewable energy, exploiting hydropower is part of future plans, with the aim to add 10,000 megawatts of capacity to the existing 1,500 MW. With Himalayan glaciers shrinking, resulting in reduced water flow to those rivers tapped for hydropower, plans include the building of dams to create large reservoirs and regulate water flows.
Planet Saving Declaration
In 2009, there was a meeting of world leaders in Copenhagen, which addressed the issues of climate change. A proclamation from the prime minister of Bhutan was made during the meeting as negotiations failed to produce a satisfactory outcome. He called it the ‘Declaration of the Kingdom of Bhutan, the Land of Gross National Happiness, to Save Our Planet’. One year later in Cancun, Mexico, the same discussions and arguments that failed to produce a conclusion the year before led Bhutan to announce that it could not wait any longer.
The prime minister announced that Bhutan would lead by example, even if such a small country might not appear to make much of a difference in reducing global emissions. As one of the country’s most vulnerable to climate change, Bhutan is aware of the fragility of the environment and the need to be proactive, and while it is a developing country, activities considered harmful to the environment would be controlled, even if they were to represent opportunities to better the economy of the country. Waiting for a global agreement in order to take action was not in the best interests of a country with such a delicate environment, and, as the agriculture and forestry minister stated, the impact of climate change was not going to wait until global decisions were made and agreed.
Remaining Carbon Neutral
For Bhutan, remaining carbon neutral is going to require careful planning. Along with the protective forest cover, poverty has kept carbon emissions low. As more cars appear on the roads and the people strive to improve both living and working conditions, the need to meet future energy demands is being carefully formulated to preserve the environment. Creating new forest plantations is not an option as more than 70 per cent of the land is already under forests.
The plans to increase hydropower will enable exports to Bhutan’s neighbour, India. These green exports will allow Bhutan to maintain its carbon goals and allow the country to maintain its precious status of carbon neutrality.