BECOMING “CARBON NEUTRAL” IS THE HOLY GRAIL for a lot of environmentalists. By ceasing to produce more carbon dioxide that we absorb, we may, as a world, be able to avoid the worst effects of man-made climate change, and reach a point where we can live sustainably on this planet. What most environmentalists don’t talk about is the possibility of becoming carbon negative. The idea of absorbing more carbon than we produce seems almost impossibly far-fetched for most of the world. Except for one country.
Bhutan is a tiny country sandwiched between China and India in the Himalayas. It’s remoteness and size have meant that it’s remained relatively untouched by the globalization that most of the rest of the world has seen, and it entered the world economy late enough that it could clearly see the downsides of global capitalism as well as the upsides. So instead of focusing on Gross National Product, it invented a concept called “Gross National Happiness.” The country now tries to balance economic growth with the preservation of its environment, culture, and quality of life.
In a TED Talk, Tshering Tobgay, the Prime Minister of Bhutan said, “Economic growth is important. But that economic growth must not come from undermining our unique culture or our pristine environment.” Bhutan calls it “development with values,” and as a result, had ensured that a staggering 72% of the country has remained under forest cover. According to the constitution, 60% of the country must always remain under forest cover.
What this means is huge: the forest sequesters three times the amount of carbon dioxide that the country produces. If Bhutan were carbon neutral, it would be the only country into the world to earn that designation. But it’s not carbon neutral. It’s carbon negative.
On top of the forests, Bhutan has invested in renewable hydroelectric energy, of which it is a net exporter. So other countries around Bhutan now receive clean electricity as well. They are working to expand this hydroelectric energy, and if they reach their goals, they will annually offset the same amount of carbon that the city of New York produces each year.
Tobgay admits that his country is small, and has a very tiny economy, but Bhutan’s story is a hopeful story. It is proof that economic development and environmentalism can go hand in hand, if we have our priorities straight. And it’s proof that we can say no to short term profit in the name of long-term global benefits.