Prime Minister Tobgay promotes well-being and environment

PM Tobgay espousing carbon sequestration
PM Tobgay espousing carbon negative Bhutan

Prime Minister Tshering Tobgay took to the stage for TED talks this month to share Bhutan’s mission to put happiness before economic growth and to set a world standard for environmental preservation.

The audience at the talk hosted by TED – a non-profit organisation that aims to spread global ideas – were given an insight into Mr Tobgay’s optimistic mandate to move Bhutan into the 21st century. He aims to do this through the theory of ‘Gross National Happiness’ (GNH).

Originally conceived in the 1970s by His Majesty the 4th King of Bhutan, GNH means the prioritization of human well-being over financial growth.

The country is one of the smallest economies in the world with a GDP of under $2 billion and all state decisions are driven by GNH. This has allowed it to offer benefits that some of the world’s richest economies cannot, including free education and free healthcare.

“We manage this because we use our limited resources very carefully and because we stay faithful to the core mission of GNH, which is development with values,” said Mr Tobgay.

Bhutan’s commitment to well-being also extends to environmental policies which, Mr Tobgay claims, have made the country not just carbon neutral but carbon negative. This means that it has achieved negative carbon emissions by removing more carbon than the country releases.

“Our entire country generates 2.2 million tons of carbon dioxide, but our forests, they sequester more than three times that amount, so we are a net carbon sink for more than four million tons of carbon dioxide each year.”

“But that’s not all. We export most of the renewable electricity we generate from our fast-flowing rivers. So today, the clean energy that we export offsets about six million tons of carbon dioxide in our neighborhood. By 2020, we’ll be exporting enough electricity to offset 17 million tons of carbon dioxide. And if we were to harness even half our hydropower potential, and that’s exactly what we are working at, the clean, green energy that we export would offset something like 50 million tons of carbon dioxide a year. That is more CO2 than what the entire city of New York generates in one year.”

With these landmark achievements, Bhutan is taking on the ambitious goal of setting the example for the rest of the world. It’s commitment to the environment is even enshrined in its 2008 constitution, which demands that at least 60 percent of the country must be under forest cover. Currently it is at 72 percent, with almost 5 million acres of protected land that is rich in forests, rivers and wildlife. Other initiatives include providing free electricity to rural farmers so they will no longer use firewood to cook food, investments in sustainable transport and subsidizing the purchase of electric vehicles, planting trees throughout the country and the entire government is going paperless.

While these milestones are extremely positive steps for the country, problems have emerged from this form of conservation, particularly with livelihood of those living in the vicinity of protected areas. The strict conservation of wildlife has led to a growing population of animals such as the snow leopard and wild boars. These animals often prey on domestic yaks that are a vital source of livelihood and wealth for herding communities. Vast areas of forest cover have also impacted industries such as farming which has seen plots of land shrinking, resulting in declining incomes for farmers.

Other challenges faced by the small country include, low economic diversification which is causing high youth unemployment, a growing the illegal wildlife trade and climate change which has so far led to melting glaciers, flash floods and landslides resulting in disaster and widespread destruction in the country. These issues have created a big increase in rural-urban migration.

In response, His Majesty the King, working alongside the government and the World Wildlife Fund (WWF), have launched Bhutan For Life. It is an initiative aiming to address the critical funding needed to tackle these emerging threats.

Mr Tobgay explained the idea to the TED audience: “Bhutan For Life gives us the time we need. It gives us breathing room. It is essentially a funding mechanism to look after our parks, to protect our parks, until our government can take over on our own fully.”

He added: “It’s something like a Kickstarter project, only with a 15-year time horizon and millions of tons of carbon dioxide at stake. Once the deal is closed, we use the transition fund to protect our parks, giving our government time to increase our own funding gradually until the end of the 15-year period. After that, our government guarantees full funding forever.”

Mr Tobgay concluded by proposing that one day, the initiative is extended to the world with Earth For Life, a global fund, to kickstart Bhutan For Life throughout the world. “After all, we’re here to dream together, to work together, to fight climate change together, to protect our planet together. Because the reality is we are in it together. Some of us might dress differently, but we are in it together,” he said.

Contributed by Steve Shaw in UK

About the author: Steve Shaw is a UK based freelance journalist working for BNS as volunteer columnist. Steve has worked for BBC as election correspondent and researcher, reporter for Tibet Post International, academy coordinator at BBC academy and reporter at P1 magazine.. He also has number of other training in BBC and The Guardian.

 Steve can be reached at [email protected]