In 2009, at the 15th UNFCCC Conference in Denmark, Bhutan made a valiant commitment to carbon neutrality, which was then re-vocalized at the 2015 Paris Climate Summit. Further, this commitment has evolved to claims of carbon neutrality, and even negativity (Tobgay, 2016), based upon rates of carbon sequestration and industrial production. These claims are justified through unpublished figures that show a “potential to sequester 6.3 million tons (Mt) of CO2 annually, easily eclipsing the country’s estimated year 2013 emission total of 2.2 Mt of CO2 equivalent “(Munawar, 2016). This is certainly good news for the small Himalayan kingdom that is sandwiched between two heavy hitters, India and China, in regards to carbon emissions. However, the problem I foresee for Bhutan is that their current calculations only seem to account for production values of carbon within the country, and lack consideration of consumption that has broader international impacts.
The notion of ecological footprint is important here, because this concept looks beyond one’s immediate impact on the local environment, and assumes that one’s consumption of materials, which may be produced from afar, must be calculated into one’s impact. The products consumed within the country have broader impacts that go beyond the nation’s borders. For example, Bhutan currently does not produce enough rice for the population, necessitating imports from India. The rice grown in India requires various inputs such as land use, water, and fertilizers, but also incorporates transportation costs and emissions. Therefore, as one consumes such rice in Bhutan, their ecological footprint extends to India. The same situation applies to energy use. While Bhutan produces ‘green’ energy through hydropower facilities, many Bhutanese are using fossil fuels for cooking, heating, and transportation. Where are these fossil fuels coming from? They come from India. And these fossil fuel imports are on the rise (Jamtsho, 2015). Therefore, despite Bhutan’s efforts to produce carbon neutral energy sources, their current imports of fossil fuels likely offset such efforts.
With Bhutan’s commitment to the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDG), this may be a humbling experience as the country works to come under compliance with SDG 12, which promotes “Responsible Consumption and Production”. Sustainability will require calculations of not only production, but also consumption. While rural living is certainly a strength of the country which may attribute to low levels of consumption and carbon emissions, the number of urban residents rose from 5% in 1980 to 45% in 2016 (NEC, 2016). Such a transition has most certainly put aspirations of carbon neutrality at risk as the growing urban population develops an appetite for foreign goods and increased consumption patterns.
All this being said, I have not been able to find concrete calculations for claims of carbon neutrality. Any such references so far seem to be ‘unpublished’. Rather, we find numerous references that continue to popularize and reify such claims, all of which ignore consumption patterns in the country. Therefore, while my assumptions may be proven false in the future, I remain cautious about claims to carbon neutrality, and especially carbon negativity.
Jamtsho, S. (2015). Sustainable Energy in Bhutan. Int. J. on Green Growth and Development, 1(2), 75-102.
Munawar, S. (2016). Bhutan Improves Economic Development as a Net Carbon Sink. Washington, D.C.: Climate Institute.
NEC (National Environment Commission). (2016). Bhutan State of the Environment Report 2016. Thimphu, Bhutan.
Tobgay, T. (2016, February). This country isn’t just carbon neutral – its carbon negative. Retrieved from: https://www.ted.com/talks/tshering_tobgay_this_country_isn_t_just_carbon_neutral_it_s_carbon_negative