Bhutan: the carbon-negative country protecting Wilderness in its constitution

A small Himalayan kingdom is leading the way in environmental policies that truly protect wild spaces. Bhutan is a little smaller than Switzerland with a population around the size of Frankfurt, but this mountainous country has made a name for itself with its use of the Gross National Happiness to measure national wealth. It also centres a pristine environment to achieve this. Bhutan has shown that it is possible to successfully integrate biodiversity and Wilderness preservation policies into the economy, which could be a model for other countries going forward.

Beyond carbon neutrality

Bhutan has introduced an amazing variety of environmental policies which are truly sustainable, but its carbon plan stands out. Its constitution mandates that at least 60% of the country must always remain forested. The current level is even higher, at around 74%. The extensive tree cover, as well as a strong hydropower industry which also supplies energy to surrounding countries, means Bhutan has the distinction of being the world’s only carbon-negative country. The former Prime Minister gave an excellent talk outlining Bhutan’s national and international environmental contributions.

Despite this remarkable achievement, Bhutan is unfairly suffering from the effects of climate change. Rising temperatures are causing glaciers to melt at an alarming rate and droughts are becoming more frequent, threatening the livelihoods of many people who rely on subsistence agriculture. The Bhutanese delegation highlighted these problems at COP26 and called upon other nations to deliver more impactful commitments. The results were not as ambitious as hoped, however.

Tshering Tobgay
Prime Minister of Bhutan, 2013 – 2018

Sensible tourism for Bhutan

The government has set a limit on the number of visitors annually and takes great pains to prevent touristic damage. As Bhutan’s mountains are considered sacred, any attempt at climbing them is forbidden. Tourism instead focuses on cultural and ecological heritage, thus avoiding the pressure on the Himalayan environment from mountaineering in Nepal. In addition, most tourists must pay a daily tax for the duration of their visit, although this includes many amenities. This does mean, however, that only wealthy foreigners are able to visit and enjoy Bhutan’s Wilderness.

Recently, the government implemented a five-year Ecotourism Project to mainstream biodiversity conservation into national tourism development. Its goals include providing livelihood opportunities, promoting human-wildlife coexistence and mitigating tourism impacts on cultural heritage as well as biodiversity. This shows a clear understanding of how harnessing and protecting nature benefits local people.

It would be misleading to call Bhutan a utopia. As with every other country it faces many challenges. For instance, pollution is on the rise due to increasing industrialisation. Rather than idolising Bhutan, other countries should take note of the importance it places on Wilderness, and how this is linked to the prosperity of its citizens. 

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