Today the UN Framwork Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) has begun in Doha, Qatar. Once again some 200 nations will try to thresh out a global deal to cut carbon emissions. As usual, things don’t look good.

But the Buddhist kingdom of Bhutan, which measures progress by what it calls GNH, or Gross National Happiness, in place of the standard GDP embraced by most of the world, is being looked to by some as a possible alternative to the model of development that is contributing so much to the climate crisis being addressed in Doha.

Bhutan has used Gross National Happiness since 1971, prioritizing health and wellbeing of both its citizens and natural environment over economic indicators. Now, in 2012, a UN panel is taking a closer look at GNH.

From the Observer:

As representatives in Doha struggle to find ways of reaching a consensus on global emissions, Bhutan is also being held up as an example of a developing country that has put environmental conservation and sustainability at the heart of its political agenda. In the last 20 years Bhutan has doubled life expectancy, enrolled almost 100% of its children in primary school and overhauled its infrastructure.

Life in Bhutan sounds refreshingly simple. According to a piece in the Deccan Chronicle, Bhutan’s capital of Thimphu has only one main road and no traffic lights. As a travel destination, it has been described as a “trekkers paradise”.

"traffic light" in Thimphu, pic: Steve Evans (Flickr CC)

While Gross National Happiness is a goal and not a system of measurement like GDP, Bhutan is not just promoting GNH in an abstract, ideological way. It is pursuing happiness via legislating progressive environmental policies: carbon neutrality, 60% of the country remaining as forestland, a ban on export logging and one day per month when private vehicles are prohibited on its roads. With the help of Unicef, Bhutan has established “green schools”, promoting recycling, waste management and agricultural techniques alongside the basic curriculum.

According to the popular UK quiz show QI, Bhutan absorbs more carbon than it emits, sells hydropower to neighboring countries and banned plastic bags as early as 1999.

What is admirable about Bhutan is that it is actively promoting sustainability and well-being, but at the same time it is one of the world’s poorest nations. It can look after its own environment, but in terms of climate change it cannot make a difference outside of setting a good example. It is nonetheless vulnerable to warming temperatures, melting glaciers, floods, an increase in storms and changing patterns of precipitation.

It is not all heavenly smiles, official environmentalism and well-being, however. In the 1990s Bhutan instituted ethnic nationalist policies that saw some 105,000 citizens of Nepalese origin stripped of their citizenship and brutally intimidated or expelled.

Read more about that here.

pic: CAPRA Initiative (Flickr CC)