How Bhutan Became the World’s Only Carbon-Negative Nation

What Can Other Nations Learn from Bhutan’s Environmental Policies?

Bhutan has emerged as the world’s first and only carbon-negative nation, which means the country generates less CO2 emissions than the amount of carbon it’s pulling out of the atmosphere. As a small developing nation surrounded by lush forests and cascading mountains, Bhutan has found a way to offset the C02 emissions it generates for economic production by leaving its rich forests of carbon-sequestering forests relatively untouched and by investing in renewable energy, including hydro-powered electricity that comes from the country’s many fast-flowing, descending rivers and streams.

As many of the world’s richest and most powerful nations grapple with the effects of climate change, more environmentalists and world leaders are looking to Bhutan for inspiration. Sea levels are continuing to rise all over the world and massive wildfires continue to wreak havoc on cities and forests across the U.S. But many nations continue to depend on the oil and gas industry for power, a key ingredient for economic growth. With the world struggling to find a way to uncouple economic growth from rising CO2 emissions, Bhutan is spreading a message of hope and environmental compassion.


Bhutan’s Nonexistent Carbon Footprint

According to the National Environmental Commission of the Royal Government of Bhutan, the country generates around 2.2 million tons of carbon dioxide every year. This is only a fraction of what some of the largest countries in world generate. The U.S. alone produced 6,970 million tons of CO2 back in the year 2014. But unlike these other nations, over 70% of Bhutan is covered in lush forests, which sequesters or absorbs over 6 million tons of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere every year. Thus, Bhutan is the only nation in the world that can claim it’s carbon negative.

The country also exports renewable electricity generated by its rivers and streams to a number of neighboring nations, which removes another 6 million tons of CO2 emissions from the earth’s atmosphere. These other nations would be relying on fossil fuels for their electricity if it weren’t for Bhutan’s clean energy initiatives.


A New Perspective on Economic Development

When it comes to combating the effects of climate change, many nations have struggled to unpair economic growth from rising CO2 emissions. Traditionally, many economists and world leaders have believed that rising CO2 emissions, including those needed for transportation, electricity, heating and cooling, are necessary for economic growth. But Bhutan has disrupted this line of thinking. As reported by The World Bank, Bhutan continues to have one of the fastest growing economies in the world with an annual growth rate of around 7.5%, far above the global average of 4.4%. Bhutan has found a way to increase economic output without putting the environment or its natural resources in jeopardy.

Bhutan has made an effort to increase economic growth over the past few decades, but only in a way that keeps the environment intact. While most countries use the gross domestic product index or GDP, a measure of a country’s net total economic output, as an indicator of economic growth, Bhutan uses what’s been called the National Happiness Index to measure economic growth. This new economic philosophy measures traditional economic growth factors like GDP along with issues of sustainability, cultural preservation and societal fulfillment. This has led to some environmentally-conscious legislative policies, including one that mandates that at least 60% of the country’s forests be preserved. By not focusing solely on economic output, the country has prioritized environmental conservation in a way that has not diminished their economic potential.


How Can Other Nation’s Follow Suit?

Many nations are beginning to recognize Bhutan for its ability to decouple economic growth from rising CO2 emissions, but many economists are skeptical that the same formula for economic growth can be applied to other nations. Currently, Bhutan has a population of just over 800,000 people. Having such a small population has helped the country keep its CO2 emissions in check, as less people are using electricity to run their homes and businesses. For a major world power like the U.S. with a population of over 325 million, keeping CO2 emissions low can be difficult, especially when nearly every citizen depends on electricity for just about everything they do.

Bhutan also has one of the highest forest cover per capita ratings in the world, with over 50 square kilometers of forest area per 1,000 citizens. Trees naturally sequester carbon out of the earth’s atmosphere, reducing the planet’s total CO2 emissions. But many nations simply do not have access to the same natural resources as Bhutan. Nations with modest forest areas, rising populations and rising demands for electricity like France, India, and Singapore cannot combat CO2 emissions in the same way as Bhutan.

Despite some of these natural advantages, Bhutan has also prioritized the production of clean electricity, even producing more than it needs and exporting it to nearby nations in need of a consistent power supply. By making environmental conservation a part of their overall economic development strategy, other nations around the world can lower their CO2 emissions without diminishing their economic growth. While other nations do not have access to the electricity-producing fast-flowing rivers in the Himalayas like Bhutan, they can invest in new, cleaner forms of electricity like solar power, wind power, and dam-powered hydro-electricity.

If more countries would be willing to invest in these types of clean electricity, they could export it to developing nations around the world, including those that still depend on fossil fuels for power generation.



While Bhutan remains committed to fusing environmental conservation with economic growth, the country is free to take advantage of its many natural resources that other nations simply cannot access. However, future generations will be able to enjoy a more responsible approach to economic growth if more nations around the world start investing in environmentally-conscious development projects. This includes not only investing in renewable sources of electricity, but also protecting existing forest areas and planting more trees across the countryside and in more urban areas.

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