Climate Call to Action: Lessons from Bhutan

By UUA International Resources

When it comes to addressing climate change, we must draw from as many sources as possible to seek creative solutions. On July 13, I attended a side event at the United Nations Headquarters titled “Getting to Zero: A Poverty, Environment, and Climate Call to Action for the Sustainable Development Goals.” In this event, representatives from Bangladesh, Bhutan, and Finland shared their countries' experiences of how they were implementing the sustainable development goals (SDGs) to achieve zero extreme poverty, zero net greenhouse emissions, and zero net loss of natural capital. This new policy framework titled “Getting to Zero” from the Poverty Environment Partnership (PEP) focuses on empowerment, institutional and finance reforms, and new metrics. While I listened to the reports countries made, I was particularly struck and inspired by Bhutan’s case described by Karma Tshoar, representative of the Royal Government of Bhutan. He discussed actions being taken towards poverty reduction intervention in his country such as the rural advancement program, the targeted household program, and the national rehabilitation program. The approach is to reduce not only traditional income-based poverty, but also multidimensional poverty. Multidimensional poverty, measured by the Global Multidimensional Poverty Index (MPI), is a concept developed by the Oxford Poverty & Human Development Initiative (OPHI) and the United Nations Development Programme six years ago in 2010. This measure takes into account factors beyond just income and captures the severe deprivations that each person faces with respect to education, health and living standards. The MPI is useful in creating a more comprehensive picture of people living in poverty and allows comparisons across countries, different ethnic groups, and urban and rural regions. Most importantly, the MPI prevents vulnerable communities living in intense poverty from being overlooked and ignored by money metric measures. Tshoar also detailed Bhutan’s environmental protection efforts and engagement to end climate change. The Constitution of Bhutan mandates that the portion of land cover should increase rather than decrease over the years. The Constitution states, “...a minimum of 60 percent of Bhutan’s total land shall be maintained as forest for all time.” Bhutan has also submitted ambitious Intended Nationally Determined Contributions (INDCs), signed the Paris Climate Agreement, and is currently in the process of ratification. Furthermore, Tshoar reported that Bhutan offsets carbon emissions by exporting clean hydropower electricity. If Bhutan continues its progress, it will offset 25 million tons of CO2 by 2025. While Bhutan aims to keep its efforts in line with the SDGs, Bhutan is also committed to building an economy that serves Bhutan’s socio-cultural and spiritual values. Instead of measuring material development gauged by Gross Domestic Product (GDP), Bhutan has introduced and coined the concept of “Gross National Happiness” or GNH. Tshering Tobgay, the Prime Minister of Bhutan, gave a TED talk earlier this year in March titled “This country isn’t just carbon neutral - it’s carbon negative.” He discussed how Bhutan is transforming itself while maintaining its Gross National Happiness. He explained, “Back in the 1970s, our fourth king famously pronounced that for Bhutan, Gross National Happiness is more important than Gross National Product. Economic growth is important, but that economic growth must not come from undermining our unique culture or our pristine environment.” While Bhutan’s economy is small, it is unique in several ways. First, all citizens are guaranteed free school education, and those that work hard are given free college education. In addition, healthcare is completely free; medical consultation, treatment, medicines are all provided by the state. Tobgay explains, “We manage this because we use our limited resources very carefully, and because we stay faithful to the core mission of GNH, which is development with values.” In regards to environmental efforts, Tobgay supported Tshoar’s explanation of how Bhutan has been offsetting carbon emissions by describing the strategy of protecting areas. He explained, “It is our protected areas that are at the core of our carbon neutral strategy. Our protected areas are our carbon sink. They are our lungs. Today, more than half our country is protected, as national parks, nature reserves and wildlife sanctuaries. But the beauty is that we've connected them all with one another through a network of biological corridors. Now, what this means is that our animals are free to roam throughout our country. Take this tiger, for example. It was spotted at 250 meters above sea level in the hot, subtropical jungles. Two years later, that same tiger was spotted near 4,000 meters in our cold alpine mountains. Isn't that awesome?” Bhutan’s holistic approach to development has achieved impressive results; it has adopted a progressive poverty reduction plan, remains carbon negative, maintains a set land cover ratio, and provides free access to education and health care - while simultaneously preserving its culture, values, and history. Bhutan leads and governs its people with values that align with Unitarian Universalist Principles. Their commitment to preserving the Earth's environment and caring for its human and non-human creatures displays their respect for the interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part. Bhutan demonstrates that every nation, big or small, not only plays an important role in addressing climate change, but also possesses the ability to lead and teach by example.

By Christina Hui, UU-UNO Climate Justice Program Intern

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Panel at “Getting to Zero: A Poverty, Environment, and Climate Call to Action for the Sustainable Development Goals" at the UN Headquarters in NYC.

Tshering Tobgay, the Prime Minister of Bhutan, presenting his TED Talk titled "This country isn't just carbon neutral - it's carbon negative."