Bhutan: climate lessons from a Himalayan kingdom

The Buddhist state is lauded for its carbon neutrality and big hydro. What can it teach foot-draggers as Paris looms?

Bhutan's giant Dordenma Buddha, which towers over Thimphu, is one of the largest in the world (Flickr/ Michael Foley)

Bhutan’s giant 51.5-metre Dordenma Buddha statue, which towers over Thimphu, is one of the largest in the world (Flickr/ Michael Foley)

By Alex Pashley

Named after violent storms that roil the Himalayas, the ‘Land of the Thunder Dragon’ is no stranger to weather extremes.

Conserving its environment, which swoops from dicey peaks to subtropical plains, is one pillar in its targeting of Gross National Happiness.

Bhutan has net zero greenhouse gas emissions, its low levels of industrial pollution soaked up by the trees that blanket three quarters of the kingdom.

The Constitution mandates its territory to be at least 60% covered by forest – the vast carbon sink a boon for its balancing of humanity and nature.

“We may be small, our impact not huge, but we always try many conservation projects,” Kinlay Dorjee, mayor of capital Thimphu, and a champion of his country’s plans on the international circuit, tells RTCC.

“It’s mainly to tell the outside world that while Bhutan may have resource problems given its size, even then we aren’t looking at polluting or deforesting the environment.”

Paris tracker: Who has pledged what for 2015 UN climate pact?

Ahead of striking a global climate pact in Paris this December, up to 200 countries are delivering their carbon-cutting pledges to the UN climate body.

Researchers from four European research outfits, under the Climate Action Tracker (CAT), have been dissecting national policies since 2009.

That is when governments agreed at Copenhagen to limit global warming to 2C from pre-industrial levels, beyond which scientists warn of catastrophic impacts.

Atop a thermometer-style sidebar on the intiative’s website, Bhutan glows green.

CAT label it a “role model”, the only one out of 24 (including the EU’s 28-member bloc) rated so.

Costa Rica, Ethiopia and Morocco make it into the “sufficient” box. The much-hailed US and China pledges are just “medium”, along with the EU. Nine countries are branded “inadequate”, including Australia and Russia.

The Climate Action Tracker assesses country's policies and pledges in meeting international global warming commitments

The Climate Action Tracker assesses country’s policies and pledges in meeting international global warming commitments (pic: CAT)

Bhutan’s situation is hardly typical. Its 760,000 people generate annual wealth of less than US$2,000 a head, their modest power needs 90% met by abundant hydroelectric resources.

What can this tiny, undeveloped Buddhist territory really teach fossil fuel-guzzling mature economies?

A fair deal, says Niklas Hoehne at Germany’s New Climate Institute, a member of the tracker.

Bhutan’s ranking dates back to a pledge made after the Copenhagen climate summit in 2010 – it is yet to submit its plan for Paris – the scientist cautions.

“At that point of time there were no pledges at all – especially not carbon neutrality,” he says. “That was remarkable that it pledged something like that, given its small scale and development stage.”

For Bhutan, which moved to a parliamentary democracy in 2008 while its monarchy retains a major role, is serious about its greenness.

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Electric cars were introduced in 2014 and make up about a tenth of total cars, according to Reuters citing government transport statistics.

In June it broke the world record for planting the most trees in one hour.

And UN climate chief Christiana Figueres has called it an “inspiration to the world” for its environmental policies.

Nearly all its electricity needs are generated by hydroelectric plant along the Puna Tsang Chu river, representing 30 gigawatts of installed capacity.

But the high cost of extending an electricity grid have resulted in it exporting up to 75% of its electric capacity in the past to neighbouring India. Two in five Bhutanese lack access to electricity.

And patchy rainfall during its winter months have made it reliant on Indian imports to prevent shortages.

The World Bank in June granted it an extra $20 million in development loans to help run a fiscal surplus after large investment in the clean power sector.

(Flickr/ Göran Höglund (Kartläsarn))

Bhutan’s Dochula Pass up (Flickr/ Göran Höglund (Kartläsarn))

Hoehne says that while they set simple categories to help policymakers, there is a “more complicated story behind each country”.

The tracker’s reports are widely cited for their unvarnished verdicts.

New Zealand was upbraided on releasing its so-called “intended nationally determined contribution” (INDC), for trying to pass off a rise in emissions as the reverse. Others have fallen foul.

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The team of 20 wants to go further, says Hoehne. They are refining how they measure emissions from “land use, land-use change and forestry”.

Given the emphasis on carbon sequestration in INDCs of forest nations like Brazil, Indonesia and Peru, Hoehne says the tracker needs a robust way to assess pledges rooted in carbon savings from forests.

That could see its assessment of Bhutan shift.

But for now, like the giant Buddha statue overlooking its capital, Bhutan remains a beacon.

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