An inverse free rider problem

“Carbon Negative” – ​​The First of Its Kind

As the richest countries in the world fail to meet emissions reduction targets year after year, the small kingdom of Bhutan, nestled in the Himalayas with a population of less than one million, has become the first countries to achieve carbon neutrality. In fact, Bhutan is now actually negative carbon— a term coined by former Bhutanese Prime Minister Tshering Tobgay that refers to the fact that Bhutan currently offsets more than four times as much carbon as its economy emits. Since 2009, Bhutan has priority environmental policy, offering a model of successful climate governance. However, as a country that is actively sinking carbon and yet ready to bear some of the worst impacts of climate change, Bhutan is a case study for the kinds of environmental justice dilemmas that will arise as the world faces to the challenges of climate change.

Bhutan has achieved carbon negativity thanks to its sequestration of carbon by its vast forests and its export of renewable energy abroad, which means that Bhutan’s actual emissions are completely offset by the carbon emissions it offsets. Forests cover approximately 75% of Bhutan’s land area, a status that the Bhutanese government intends to preserve; the country has enshrined in its constitution the commitment to preserve 60% of its territory in perpetuity as forest land. This is the key to Bhutan’s carbon neutrality, because its forests sequester about nine million tons of carbon per year, while its economy does not generates around two million tons, according to 2020 figures. Not only is the kingdom a net carbon sink, but it shifts additional emissions by exporting its vast hydropower generation, primarily to India.

Additionally, Bhutan is committed to transitioning to a fully renewable energy grid and protecting the biodiversity of its ecosystem. Although much of Bhutan is powered by its hydroelectric power, around 4,000 rural families do not have access to the main power grid. To accommodate this, a key element of Bhutan’s five-year plans is the development of off-grid renewable energy projects, exemplifying theleave no one behind” approach to climate adaptation. Beyond mitigating carbon emissions through sequestration and renewable energy, Bhutan is also committed to preserving biodiversity. For example, one of its most important projects, launched in 1999, is that of its “biological corridors» that connect separate protected areas, which allow wildlife to cross unhindered between the different preserved natural areas. This project is not just an act of kindness to the animals of Bhutan, but also actively prevents loss of biodiversity by promoting gene flow and allowing species to adapt to climate change.

GNH vs. GDP: The Economics of Happiness

How did the often-forgotten small nation achieve this milestone of carbon neutrality and quickly implement such a variety of sustainability-focused policies, while other countries are still struggling to reduce emissions? One of Bhutan’s key guiding principles dates back to King Jigme Singye Wangchuck, who declared in 1972 that Happiness is more important than GDP. His radical philosophy became the fundamental governing principle of Bhutan, and since then growth strategies have been designed to maximize happiness rather than GDP. Two essential components of the Gross National Happiness (GNH) index are sustainable socio-economic development and environmental conservation. It is important to note that officially government documents regarding climate change, particular emphasis is placed on the rights of future generations to environmental security and enjoyment of natural resources, making intergenerational climate justice a key motivator to catalyze climate action.

While Bhutan’s unique happiness-based philosophy is certainly a factor in crafting its singularly green policies, another factor is the relative size of the kingdom’s economy. The population of Bhutan does not exceed one million people and it is still classified as a developing country. For this reason, following Bhutan’s carbon neutral model may seem inconceivable for large economies like the United States and China, whose capitalist systems seem totally incompatible with Bhutan’s unconventional growth strategy. However, the data suggests that Bhutan’s focus on sustainability and its economic growth are not mutually exclusive goals. Bhutan is on the right track to graduate from developing country status by 2023 and the percentage of its population living in poverty as defined by international standards fell from 31% to 8% over the last fifteen years.

That being said, Bhutan has not miraculously solved the baffling global problem of how to balance growth and sustainability. Although Bhutan has managed to achieve both economic growth and reduced emissions, some of the pillars of its sustainable governance are coming under pressure as the economy grows. With a relatively weak economy—manufacturing has grown slowly as a share of GDP over the past decade and Bhutan’s exports are relatively undiversified – the prioritization of conservation over economic growth may not be sustainable. Second, the development and implementation of climate change mitigation technologies and policies is expensive – a problem for the Bhutanese government which work with a GDP of approximately US$2.5 billion.

To counter these problems, the government of Bhutan has taken steps to ensure the long-term sustainability of its policies. The constitution’s clause requiring that 60% of the land area be forested is an example of this forward-looking planning. Financially, Bhutan has also secured long-term funding for its projects through Bhutan for Life, a fund developed in partnership with the World Wildlife Fund in 2017 that accumulates donations from private and public donors to continuously fund its sustainability efforts and conservation. The initial capital of approximately US$43 million came from private donors and the remaining US$75 million is to be injected by the Bhutanese government over a period of fourteen years. This structure anticipates long-term capital shortfalls for sustainable development projects; the fourteen-year time horizon is intended to give the government time to accumulate sources of longer-term funding for such ventures. In addition to preserving Bhutan’s protected areas and biological corridors, the project will fund research and development in renewable energy and encourage more sustainable living in local communities.

Environmental champions, victims of climate change

While Bhutan diligently plans for its carbon negativity and long-term sustainability goals, the rest of the world continues to emit carbon at unsustainable rates. The “net zero” emissions targets set by countries like the United States, Japan and the European Union, in contrast to Bhutan’s carbon negativity, leave loopholes that delay significant emission reductions. The lack of immediate action by the majority of countries in the world means that climate change will continue to aggravate and exacerbate natural disasters and the adverse effects of climate change. Bhutan itself may be carbon negative, but carbon emissions are inherently a common global problem, so individual Bhutan mitigation efforts will not prevent the kingdom from suffering the negative effects of climate change. with other countries.

In fact, Bhutan is likely to suffer even more than the wealthy emitting countries; the United States, the largest economy in the world, has issued the most carbon to date, responsible for approximately 25% of historical emissions. Due to Bhutan’s geography and small economy, it is on the cusp of major weather-related disasters and it will likely struggle to recover economically. Already, the country knows more extreme flash floods, windstorms, forest fires and landslides over the past decades. An imminent threat is the flooding of glacial lakes (GLOF). Bhutan’s position nestled in the Himalayas means it is very susceptible to these floods, the frequency of which will increase as the Himalayan glaciers continue to melt. The most devastating GLOF to date occurred in October 1994, when Lugge Tsho erupted, killing 21 people, destroying homes and over 1,000 acres of land, and damaging farmland. About 2% of Bhutan’s current glacial lakes have been identified as being at high risk for GLOF events, and this ratio will likely increase with increasing temperatures, posing serious threats to human settlements in Bhutan. Apart from loss of life, climate-related natural disasters such as GLOFs that destroy agricultural land will be particularly devastating to the Bhutanese economy, which is very dependent on agriculture.

An ethical conundrum

The juxtaposition between the fragility of Bhutan’s economy and its susceptibility to climate-related disasters and its supremacy in achieving the Sustainable Development Goals is an extreme example of the conundrum facing many countries: why a country should reduce its emissions, which could hamper its own economic growth, if other countries do? continue to emit carbon and inflict climate-related damage on a global scale? This is precisely the issue that creates the endemic free rider problem in climate change politics and often returns promises made at conferences like COP15. ineffective.

Somehow, however, the tiny kingdom of Bhutan has found a way to overcome the lure of freeriding and emerge as a champion of sustainability, with no guarantee that other countries will catch up. their delay in time to prevent Bhutan from suffering the adverse effects of the climate. change. Whether this is a function of Bhutan’s membership in the BNB index or its agrarian way of life is unclear, but the ethical implications of a developing country prepared to endure extreme suffering as a result of a climate change, even if it sequesters the carbon emitted by countries whose GDP eclipses its own, is troubling. Although the exact Bhutanese model for reducing emissions may be difficult to apply to major industrialized countries, the world could be much closer to achieving the goal. 1.5 degree target for global warming embraced by world leaders, if more countries would embrace Bhutan’s focus on environmental policy, sustainability and happiness.

Earnest L. Veasey