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How Bhutan became the world’s greenest country

Carbon sinks, 70% forest cover, powered almost entirely by mountain streams—Bhutan is a poster child for green living.

It is the only country in the world that is carbon negative, which means it produces more oxygen than it consumes. Bhutan generates about 2.2 million tonnes of carbon annually, yet its forests absorb three times this amount, which creates a carbon sink.

Sure, it’s a small country with a population of only 750,000, but other smaller countries—the Maldives, Luxembourg—haven’t managed this yet.

Flying into Bhutan over the Himalayas, the first thing you notice are the trees. A thick blanket of green wraps around the mountains, a complete contrast to the denuded hills of India.

The drive from Paro airport to Thimphu—all hairpin curves and idyllic scenery—is almost unbelievably gorgeous. The streets are virtually empty, except for a few cars, and people walking about in traditional costumes, a stripy gho for the men and a long woven skirt called the kira for the women.

The buildings are all less than six storeys tall, and are uniformly in Bhutanese style. It’s like an Asian version of Noddy’s toy town.

How did Bhutan get where it is? Everyone I ask credits the fourth king, Jigme Singye Wangchuck, for Bhutan’s green status. Rightly so. In 1972, as every neighbouring nation focused on increasing their gross domestic product (GDP), the maverick Wangchuck introduced the gross national happiness (GNH) concept.

His hypothesis: GDP ignored the basic need of every human being: happiness.

“The fourth king was a visionary,” says Thinley Namgyel, chief environment officer of the climate change division at Bhutan’s National Environment Commission. “He passed rules mandating that every household should get permission to extract firewood. The export of timber was banned and community forestry was encouraged. Thirty per cent of the forests were declared protected areas, and linked with corridors, so animals could travel between them.”

A GNH Centre was set up, periodic surveys conducted, and indices devised to measure happiness. Fun fact: the 2015 survey found 91% of Bhutanese were narrowly, extensively or deeply happy.

Every government policy is vetted according to GNH, and what the Bhutanese call the four pillars: good governance, sustainable promotion of socioeconomic development, preservation of culture and environmental conservation. In practice, this means a deeply spartan way of life. Just one example: in many Thimphu restaurants, I found I had to order my dinner well in advance, otherwise there would be no dinner at all, to avoid food wastage.

A tightly controlled tourist policy, which makes tourists—though not Indians—pay $250 per day, has restricted the flow of visitors and kept forests unspoilt. The fourth king also chose hydropower rather than fossil fuels, fuelled by Bhutan’s fast-moving mountain streams. It’s now Bhutan’s biggest export—70% is sold to India. (Concerns are now being raised about possible ecological damage from a growing number of dams and hydropower projects, but that’s another story.)

Bhutan’s hilly environment has been a friend of its forests; only 2.9% of the land is flat and arable anyway, which means it has escaped an invasion of the forests by farmers. Farmers were given free electricity to stop them plundering the forests for firewood.

“It was easier for us, than say India or China, because we have only 20 people per sq. km. We have also had political commitment,” says Vijay Moktan, conservation director of the World Wildlife Fund (WWF), Bhutan. “In the 2000s, pressure began to build on the forests. There was a lot of demand for timber. So, when Bhutan became a democracy in 2008, a mandatory 60% forest cover was introduced in the constitution. We now have 70% cover.”

So far, so good. But then, two things happened.

One, India and China got richer. Bhutan, sandwiched between the two most populous nations on Earth, suffers for their sins. Glaciers are beginning to melt, flash floods and heavy rains—and even droughts—are common, and temperatures are climbing.

When I visit, Thimphu is hotter than Bengaluru. “Sometimes I wonder what we are trying to do here. Because climate change is happening outside, in India, China and Bangladesh, and we have no control over that,” says a frustrated Moktan.

Two, Bhutan changed. “We are undergoing a demographic shift,” says Namgyel, “The villages are full of the very old and the very young. We have a rising young population, and they are moving to the cities in search of jobs.”

In common with India, Bhutan’s young people are slowly discovering the outside world, and they want more than their fathers had.

“Nowadays, young people don’t want to work on the land,” says Karma Dorji, a recent business graduate, who is hoping to go overseas for studies. “And they don’t want blue-collar jobs given by the government. They want white-collar jobs.”

Through the Internet and social media, Bhutanese are being exposed to ways of life other than their own, and some are chafing against government controls. In Thimphu, I was asked again and again if I had cigarettes, banned by the government for locals, but allowed for foreigners.

“In 2014, the government imposed a 100% tax on the import of foreign cars, and people are still buying them,” says one Thimphu taxi driver, complaining about the increased traffic (which is, of course, still negligible to the Indian eye). “Where once people were content to walk everywhere, they now want cars.”

“A car for each family has become more a necessity than a luxury in Bhutan because undisputedly the public transport is not only unreliable and inefficient, it is also often expensive,” writes Sonam Tashi, a lecturer, in a letter to the local paper. “The people are paying for the government’s incompetence.”

On the outskirts of Thimphu, new construction mushrooms. There are Toyota showrooms, gyms and pizza parlours. There is also more pressure on the forests than ever before.

Bhutan’s agricultural income is declining as most of its people are subsistence farmers, and the tiny amount of agricultural land can’t support the increasing population. The country is heavily dependent on imports—nearly 50% of its rice comes from India.

As Bhutan’s timber requirements increase, the country is also expected to have to import timber from India. Democracy may well make it tougher to take strong measures.

Still, with all these, Bhutan is determined to maintain the 60% forest cover guaranteed by the constitution. “Saving the forests is a selfish decision for us, actually,” says Namgyel, “The Himalayan ecosystem is very fragile. Water resources are critical for us—because our chief export is hydropower—and the only way to save water is to save the forests.”

Namgyel was one of Bhutan’s negotiators at the Paris climate change agreement in December 2015, where the world’s nations committed to restrict the rise in global temperatures to 1.5 degrees Celsius. The agreement has come under heavy criticism for not coming up with a clear plan to help developing nations like Bhutan and India find the funds—called climate reparations—to combat climate change.

Instead, developed countries—who mostly have been responsible for climate change with their unfettered growth—have made vague noises about a voluntary fund.

“It’s not everything that we wanted, but it’s something. Targets for reducing climate change have been set, now we have to figure out how to get to the target,” Namgyel says diplomatically.

Meanwhile, a stubborn India has still not ratified the Paris deal, and is holding out for more climate reparations, and an entry into the Nuclear Suppliers Group.

Bhutan, though, squeezed as it is, says urgent action is needed.

“We can’t afford to wait for climate reparations. We are running out of time. We can work towards achieving it with other less developed countries, but we need to take our own steps too,” says Moktan.

Bhutan is trying out a number of solutions. One of them is Bhutan for Life, an ambitious, though still fledgling, project in partnership with the WWF. It is a conservation plan that aims to raise $40 million from a group of donors—mostly large companies, wealthy individuals and institutions—to help Bhutan’s conservation work.

The fund, which is predicted to reach its target by the end of the year, is a multi-party and single-closing deal, which means the money will not be distributed until the total fund-raising commitment goal has been reached.

Payments from the fund will be distributed annually over 15 years. During that time, the government of Bhutan will also increase its spending—in part by creating new funding sources such as ecotourism—until it fully assumes the costs of conservation.

The funds are going to be used to compensate people who have suffered because of human-wildlife conflict, manage forests and help find sources of income other than forest products. It’s way too early to see how Bhutan for Life will do, but similar projects by the WWF have helped conserve wildlife in Colombia, Peru and Brazil.

The Bhutanese government has also tied up with Nissan and Mahindra Reva to push electric cars, though they have seen few takers so far. And in a very ambitious move, Bhutan plans to go zero waste 100% organic and maintain its green cover.

Can India learn from Bhutan? It can certainly wake up to the connection between forest ecology and water, for instance, which our planners have long overlooked. The disastrous result: a deforested Western Ghats, water shortages and the recent Cauvery riots in Karnataka and Tamil Nadu.

And it could learn from Bhutan’s vigorous afforestation programme: in April, 108,000 trees were planted to celebrate the birth of the new prince. A failing, below-par hydropower sector could also be revived.

Growth, while crucial, needs to be looked at along with environmental concerns. And given that time is running out for all nations, a timeline for ratifying the Paris agreement is crucial.

At the recent Mountain Echoes literary festival in Thimphu, there was much debate over how—and how much—Bhutan should change.

“We are not here to be a pretty showpiece for foreigners,” says Dasho Ugen Tsechup Dorji, a local businessman, to murmurs of agreement from the audience. “If we don’t provide jobs and opportunities to our young, we will have huge problems.”

“Change is inevitable. But that does not mean change has to go against our culture. We don’t need to pollute our cities,” says Namgyel.

A new juggling act for Bhutan remains. The world will be watching.

Kavitha Rao is a Bengaluru-based journalist and author.

Comments are welcome at feedback@livemint.com

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