The world can learn a lot from Bhutan’s policies on climate and development
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The world can learn a lot from Bhutan’s policies on climate and development

THE small Himalayan country where success is measured by Gross National Happiness (instead of Gross Domestic Product) has also set its own high standards for greenhouse gas emissions and reforestation.

Bhutan is also carbon neutral, or to be precise, it is “carbon negative”, according to the climate change think tank Energy and Climate Intelligence Unit (ECIU). The group’s analysis shows that Bhutan absorbs three times as much CO2 as it produces. It recently set a world record last summer by planting almost 50,000 trees in a single hour.

What is GNH?

The King of Bhutan introduced Gross National Happiness, or GNH, to the world back in 1972, outlining its four pillars of development:

  • Good governance
  • Sustainable socio-economic development
  • Cultural preservation
  • Environmental conservation

Though based on the spiritual values of Buddhism, over the years GNH has evolved into a development model, which offers a legitimate alternative to established systems and indexes that are based on economic indicators. It has also influenced various schools of political and economic thought. In 2011 the United Nations unanimously agreed to include happiness on its agenda for global development.

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While valuing human wellbeing and the natural environment over simple monetary wealth may not sound that radical to everyone, as a concept for governance in the current political and economic climate it’s nothing short of revolutionary thought.

How does GNH work?

As a goal instead of a system of measurement like GDP, GNH does not rely on statistics, however it does use them. Bhutan’s GNH-guided policies include preserving at least 60 percent of the country as forestland, prohibiting private road traffic one day a month, and banning plastic bags way back in 1999, long before it was cool.

Is GNH realistic?

Though its tiny circa 700,000-strong population may not make much of an impact in global emissions numbers, Bhutan can help by offering solutions and setting an example.

Unfortunately, they also risk great hardships due to the rest of the world’s comparatively profligate behavior concerning climate change.

From the Guardian:

“As a small state high in the Himalayas, Bhutan faces disruption to water supplies, extreme weather and impacts on ecosystems as a result of changes to the climate, so it is in their interests to address the problem both domestically and through the UN climate process.”

—Richard Black, director, ECIU

That said, Bhutan’s environmental policies are more about GNH than carbon neutrality. Preserving natural wealth promotes happiness and can even boost the economy, in terms of tourism and by producing clean energy, which Bhutan sells to neighboring countries.

Emulate Bhutan’s non-materialism and conservation, not its nationalism

While Bhutan’s situation may be unique and not applicable to other countries with larger populations, more industrialized economies and fewer or different natural resources, it can still serve as inspiration. Bhutan’s policies place a true value on preserving nature rather than recklessly exploiting it and offer a welcome alternative to the materialistic, ultra-commodified and consumerist societies that dominate the world.

Other countries should also be careful to not follow Bhutan on all leads. In the 1990s ethnic nationalist policies saw over 100,000 Bhutanese of Nepali origin stripped of their citizenship, intimidated or expelled. There is indeed a dark side to what the previous King of Bhutan referred to as the “strong tradition and culture” aspect of GNC.