Landlocked in the Himalayas, Bhutan has a population of less than 800,000. Yet, this small country has radically transformed fundamental notions surrounding national policy priorities through changes in their environmental policy and adoption of the innovative Gross National Happiness (GNH) index.
Currently, western countries address environmental policy as a way to prevent the tragedy of the commons and market failure. The underlying assumption here is that environmental policies are only necessary as far as being a means to achieving economic prosperity. The stronger assumption that once had more clout is that economic growth and environmental protection are mutually exclusive on a practical level. The result is that many of the policies crafted from these underlying beliefs have been unable to curb carbon emissions or prevent further global temperature increase. However, Bhutan dispels both of these myths by demonstrating that not only can environmental protection and economic growth be achieved in tandem, they are a means to an end, the mere by-product of striving for happiness.
In 2008, Bhutan enshrined Gross National Happiness (GNH) as a philosophy to shape policy creation. This comprehensive index covers nine domains and addresses living standards, education, health, environment, community vitality, time use, psychological wellbeing, good governance as well as cultural resilience and promotion. Prospective policies are measured against these indices to evaluate their potential benefit to society and impact on national happiness. Fundamentally, Bhutan seeks to create “development with values” that aims to improve the nation’s environmental, social, cultural and economic wellbeing.
Measures of GNH have suggested that Bhutan’s subjective happiness has increased over the last decade, accompanying and even tracking improvements in traditional economic indicators. World Bank data demonstrates that since 2008 Bhutan has increased GDP and recorded higher household income, whilst maintaining a stable unemployment rate averaging 2.5%. This substantiates the ability for a cohesive and overarching policy approach that seeks holistic national understanding to also achieve traditional economic goals.
Bhutan’s environmental policy approach: a blueprint for zero emissions internationally
The international community was rocked by Donald Trump’s announcement that the United States will withdraw from the Paris Agreement to protect its economy, coming into effect in 2020. The 2015 Paris Agreement, under the United Nations Framework Convention of Climate Change (UNFCCC), was ratified by 55 member nations responsible for contributing more than half of global greenhouse emissions. The Agreement was recognised as a watershed moment for the future of environmental policy because of its aims to prevent the increase of the global average temperature, increase the ability to adapt to climate change and create a future where businesses contribute low greenhouse gas emissions and sustainable development strategies. Yet, further action is required by member nations to reach climate targets by the 2030 timeline, with some studies suggesting that due to current trends, the probability of meeting the Paris Agreement is below 5%.
Despite this, the international community has a blueprint for implementing successful environmental action. Driven by GNH measures, Bhutan announced at the 2009 Climate Change Conference its commitment to remain carbon neutral. Annually, Bhutan caps its carbon production at 2.2 million tonnes whilst acting as a net carbon sink for more than four million tonnes. National parks and greenspaces are protected, with the constitution ensuring forests comprise a minimum of 60% of Bhutan’s land cover. Currently, more than 72% of Bhutan is covered in forest, with these trees absorbing more than 4 million tonnes of carbon annually meaning that Bhutan is not only carbon neutral, it is carbon negative.
According to Prime Minister Tshering Tobgay, pursuing successful environmental policy is achievable globally – but first a nation must prioritise happiness to unlock greater environmental and social progress. To enhance GNH, the Bhutanese government has invested in sustainable transport, subsidised electric cars, transitioned into a paperless administration and funded renewable energy schemes. Core to the GNH philosophy, these measures work together to increase the nine domains contributing to higher aggregate happiness levels.
Whilst achieving carbon negative status is heavily dependent on a number of factors, much can be learnt from using GNH to create better environmental policy. The task of pursuing carbon negative status is overwhelming for a country like Australia that emits more than 536 million tonnes of carbon annually. Fixed geographic factors such as Australia’s vast land area make widespread use of solar power a viable and effective way to harness renewable energy. Already, there has been a 69% increase in solar panel installation in Australia in 2018, a trend that could facilitate a happier nation with fewer carbon emissions. This emphasises the importance of relying a nations unique natural resources to shape their own zero emissions plan, as most countries do not have Bhutan’s dense forest cover to rely on. Herein, by ensuring the wellbeing of future generations who will inherit more than just the economy, an approach that increases happiness can contribute to a greater environmental, social and economic legacy.
Bhutan’s use of alternative indicators reminds us that there is more to evaluating successful environmental policy than relying on purely traditional approaches. In particular, that environmental policy does not require economic growth to be cast aside and through good governance, both can be achieved concurrently. As such, Bhutan’s cohesive GNH approach which enshrines environmental, social and cultural focus alongside economic goals, can allow governments to navigate their way towards carbon neutrality and greater environmental prosperity.
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