‘Carbon sink’ Bhutan counts cost of plans for green future
Punakha, Bhutan - The gentle whirring of the wind turbine speaks volumes of Bhutan’s record as the world’s only carbon negative country, but major challenges stand in the way of the Himalayan kingdom’s decision to follow a green path over rampant economic expansion.
The mountainous state, holding only its third election on October 18, absorbs three times more CO2 than it emits, thanks mainly to the lush forests covering 72 per cent of its land.
Famed as the ‘last Shangri-La’ for using happiness as a measure of success, Switzerlandsized Bhutan has been careful to keep its environment pristine, often by sacrificing profits.
The nation of 800,000 has restricted tourist numbers with a daily fee of US$250 per visitor in high season, helping keep at bay the kind of boom that has ravaged other scenic hotspots.
In May, Bhutan opted out of an India-backed regional road connectivity project mainly over concerns that trucks coming in from other countries will pollute its air. The constitution stipulates that at least 60 per cent of Bhutan must be covered in forest, putting a brake on farming and a potentially lucrative tim- ber industry. “There was a great temptation to dig into our forest wealth but we thought of the longer term,” said Dasho Paljor Dorji from Bhutan’s National Environment Commission.
Under its 11th five-year-plan, Bhutan aims to reduce ‘substantially’ its fossil fuel imports by 2020. It has just 100 electric cars so far but wants to increase numbers and plans to introduce a nationwide network of charging stations. In 2016 it installed its first wind turbines.
In Punakha district earth- movers and bulldozers are chugging away at a hydropower project. It is one of the ten the country aims to build as part of its plan to remain carbon neutral. All existing and future hydropower projects are financed by its friend and biggest partner India. Hydropower was also Bhutan’s largest export in 2016, accounting for 32.4 per cent of the country’s total exports and eight per cent of its GDP, according to Asian Development Bank.
But concerns have been growing over the impact of dams on biodiversity especially as Bhutan shifts from low-impact ‘run-of-the-river’ dams, which do not require large reservoirs, to larger-scale barriers that do.
And being able to afford staying on a green path depends on Bhutan receiving outside funding, something in doubt since President Donald Trump announced last year that the US would withdraw from the 2015 Paris climate accord.
A wind turbine in Rubesa village in Wangdue Phodrang, Bhutan