The curious case of Bhutan: a carbon-negative nation protecting its next-generation

by student Matthew Rees

July 2019 was recently confirmed as the hottest recorded month of all time. The inaction taken towards the climate crisis has fuelled protests around the world, led mostly by young people looking to protect their futures by calling on governments to reject the over-reliance on fossil fuels.

However, located in Southeast Asia, the nation of Bhutan is already ahead of the game. It is unique in the fact that it is the only ‘carbon negative’ country in the world, absorbing 6.5million tonnes of carbon dioxide, whilst producing only 2.2 million tonnes. Having had their model consistently referred to throughout the 2019 Asia Pacific Regional Network for Early Childhood Conference (ARNEC), Bhutan’s ambitious measures have laid the foundations for their young children to successfully grow and develop in a sustainable physical environment. So, how did Bhutan achieve this status and how can states around the world learn from this to protect their younger generations?

Karma Gayleg, representing Bhutan’s Ministry of Education, explained during a cross-panel discussion how environmental sustainability has become embedded into the country’s culture. This has been achieved through careful macro and micro level governmental policies that have prioritised the importance of nature over profits. For example, there is a constitutional mandate ensuring that 60% of the nation’s landmass has to be covered by trees. There have also been efforts to end plastic use, restrictions placed on tourism numbers and tax-reductions gifted to those using ‘green’ vehicles.

However, the most notable scheme that can be credited to Bhutan’s environmental success is the way in which the government measures its performance. Instead of using the internationally accepted measure of Gross Domestic Product (GDP), Bhutan has pioneered the use of Gross National Happiness (GNP). In doing so, Bhutan has diverted its attention away from the need to constantly grow an economy, and instead towards how satisfied and content its citizens are. Sadly, in an economy dominated by neoliberal values wellbeing is not facilitated for, with exploitation, overworking and environmental destruction all being seen as a desirable for improving economic performance. Studies have demonstrated the positive effect that spending time in nature can have on happiness and mental health, boosting self-esteem whilst reducing stress and anxiety. It is therefore no surprise to find that in its attempts to improve its citizens wellbeing, Bhutan has protected and promoted its green landscape — thus become a carbon negative nation in the process.

Yet, those benefiting the most from this commitment to ensuring widespread happiness are Bhutan’s youngest. From birth, its children are living in accord with the natural world. Research has confirmed that playing in nature releases serotine, grows focus and even allows young children to develop their vocabulary and creativity. These are just a handful of the positive impacts. By being carbon negative, Bhutan has created a sustainable and safe environment that gives its children the opportunity to reach their full developmental potential. This is a core theme that ARNEC aims to raise and the success of Bhutan has attracted significant attention by those attending so far this week.

During her presentation ‘Nature and the Brain — How Urbanisation and Technology is Impacting Childhood Development’, Caroline Essame, CEO of Create CATT, stated that by 2050 ¾ of the world’s population will be living in an urban area — thus posing a serious threat to children suffering from a ‘nature deficit disorder’. It therefore appears that the world needs to adopt and learn from Bhutan’s success in protecting its most vulnerable. Children across the globe are already having to deal with the dangerous challenges presented by climate change — accounting for 40–60% of those affected by natural disasters. However, less of an emphasis has been placed on the effects that global warming presents to their education and growth as an individual. By refusing to adapt and tackle the climate emergency, children’s potential will be never be truly achieved.

Bhutan does have its flaws. It is a politically weak country with 12% of its population living below the poverty line. However, this should not stop other nations around the globe from taking note of its ambitious programme of protecting the environment. This will not only halt the disastrous consequences of the climate emergency, but also give young children the sustainable physical environment required to achieve their full developmental potential.