Carbon-negative Bhutan offers lessons on fighting climate change

As more countries set goals to achieve net-zero emissions years from now, the Himalayan kingdom of Bhutan already has gone further by becoming carbon negative -- absorbing more carbon than it emits.

Nestled between China and India, Bhutan is home to around 800,000 people across an area a little smaller than Switzerland. Though Bhutan's economy depends heavily on tourism, the country sees its environment as an even greater priority.

Bhutan reopened to tourists on Sept. 23 after a closure of roughly two and a half years due to COVID-19. Visitors now pay a $200 "sustainable development fee" per day, replacing the requirement that they buy a $200 to $250 daily package covering food, accommodations and a smaller development fee. As a result, costs for visitors are expected to almost double.

The travel industry worries that the fee, meant to help preserve Bhutan's environment, will squeeze tourist traffic. But sustained environmental protection outweighs economic concerns, Economic Affairs Minister Loknath Sharma told Nikkei.

Bhutan is one of three carbon negative countries, along with Panama and Suriname.

"We have a unique responsibility to share our climate action-oriented best practices with the global community," the countries said in a declaration at the United Nations COP26 climate summit in Scotland last year.

Their achievement stems from a commitment to saving forests and the use of renewable energy.

Bhutan has safeguarded its carbon negativity for five decades, since the reign of former King Jigme Singye Wangchuck, said Sonam P. Wangdi, secretary of the National Environment Commission. At least 60% of Bhutan must remain under forest cover, according to its constitution adopted in 2008.

Bhutan's forests shrank to less than 60% of the country back in the early 1990s, largely due to logging for export. But the government has cracked down on illegal timber operations over the past decade with the help of drones and sensors, and the forest coverage rebounded to 71% in 2020.

The country also runs on hydropower and promotes organic farming.

Bhutan absorbed around 7.75 million tonnes of greenhouse gas emissions in 2015, according to data published in 2020 -- far more than the roughly 2.18 million tonnes it emitted.

Some communities outside Bhutan want to follow in its footsteps. The city of Kunisaki in southwestern Japan said in January that it aims to be carbon negative by 2050. It is replacing trees in public forests with those that absorb more greenhouse gases, and will take advantage of carbon trading.

Such efforts can create new jobs and boost a region's appeal to tourists. With heat waves, floods and fires caused by climate change posing a growing risk to economic activity, communities worldwide can learn from the example set by carbon negative countries.