Tshering Tobgay: This country isn’t just carbon neutral – it’s carbon negative In case you are wondering, no, I’m not wearing a dress, and no, I’m not saying what I’m wearing underneath. This is a gho. This is my national dress. This is how all men dress in Bhutan. That is how our women dress. Like our women, we men get to wear pretty, bright colors, but unlike our women, we get to show off our legs. Our national dress is unique, but t...
In case you are wondering, no, I’m not wearing a dress, and no, I’m not saying what I’m wearing underneath. This is a gho. This is my national dress. This is how all men dress in Bhutan. That is how our women dress. Like our women, we men get to wear pretty, bright colors, but unlike our women, we get to show off our legs. Our national dress is unique, but this is not the only thing that’s unique about my country. Our promise to remain carbon neutral is also unique, and this is what I’d like to speak about today – our promise to remain carbon neutral. But before I proceed, I should set you the context. I should tell you our story.
Bhutan is a small country in the Himalayas. We’ve been called Shangri-la, even the last Shangri-la. But let me tell you right off the bat, we are not Shangri-la. My country is not one big monastery populated with happy monks. The reality is that there are barely 700,000 of us sandwiched between two of the most populated countries on Earth, China and India. The reality is that we are a small, underdeveloped country doing our best to survive. But we are doing OK. We are surviving. In fact, we are thriving. And the reason we are thriving is because we’ve been blessed with extraordinary kings. Our enlightened monarchs have worked tirelessly to develop our country, balancing economic growth carefully with social development, environmental sustainability, and cultural preservation, all within the framework of good governance. We call this holistic approach to development “Gross National Happiness,” or GNH. Back in the 1970s, our fourth king famously pronounced that for Bhutan, Gross National Happiness is more important than gross national product. Ever since, all development in Bhutan is driven by GNH, a pioneering vision that aims to improve the happiness and well-being of our people. But that’s easier said than done, especially when you are one of the smallest economies in the world. Our entire GDP is less than two billion dollars. I know that some of you here are worth more individually than the entire economy of my country.
So our economy is small, but here is where it gets interesting. Education is completely free. All citizens are guaranteed free school education, and those that work hard are given free college education. Health care is also completely free. Medical consultation, medical treatment, medicines – they are all provided by the state. 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. Our economy is small, and we must strengthen it. Economic growth is important, but that economic growth must not come from undermining our unique culture or our pristine environment.
Today, our culture is flourishing. We continue to celebrate our art and architecture, food and festivals, monks and monasteries. And yes, we celebrate our national dress too. This is why I can wear my gho with pride.
Here’s a fun fact. You’re looking at the world’s biggest pocket. It starts here, goes around the back, and comes out from inside here. In this pocket, we store all manner of personal goods, from phones and wallets to iPads, office files, and books. But sometimes... sometimes even precious cargo.
So our culture is flourishing, but so is our environment. 72 percent of my country is under forest cover. Our constitution demands that a minimum of 60 percent of Bhutan’s total land shall remain under forest cover for all time.
Our constitution – this constitution – imposes forest cover on us. Incidentally, our king used this constitution to impose democracy on us. You see, we the people didn’t want democracy. We didn’t ask for it, we didn’t demand it, and we certainly didn’t fight for it. Instead, our king imposed democracy on us by insisting that he include it in the constitution. But he went further. He included provisions in the constitution that empower the people to impeach their kings and included provisions in here that require all our kings to retire at the age of 65. Fact is, we already have a king in retirement. Our previous king, the Great Fourth, retired 10 years ago at the peak of his popularity. He was all of 51 years at that time.
So as I was saying, 72 percent of our country is under forest cover, and all that forest is pristine. That’s why we are one of the few remaining global biodiversity hot spots in the world, and that’s why we are a carbon-neutral country. In a world that is threatened with climate change, we are a carbon-neutral country. Turns out, it’s a big deal. Of the 200-odd countries in the world today, it looks like we are the only one that’s carbon neutral. Actually, that’s not quite accurate. Bhutan is not carbon neutral; Bhutan is carbon negative. Our entire country generates 2.2 million tons of carbon dioxide, but our forests, they sequester more than three times that amount, so we are a net carbon sink for more than four million tons of carbon dioxide each year. But that’s not all. We export most of the renewable electricity we generate from our fast-flowing rivers. So today, the clean energy that we export offsets about six million tons of carbon dioxide in our neighborhood. By 2020, we’ll be exporting enough electricity to offset 17 million tons of carbon dioxide. And if we were to harness even half our hydropower potential – and that’s exactly what we are working at – the clean, green energy that we export would offset something like 50 million tons of carbon dioxide a year. That is more CO2 than what the entire city of New York generates in one year.
So, inside our country, we are a net carbon sink. Outside, we are offsetting carbon. And this is important stuff. You see, the world is getting warmer, and climate change is a reality. Climate change is affecting my country. Our glaciers are melting, causing flash floods and landslides, which in turn are causing disaster and widespread destruction in our country.
I was at that lake recently. It’s stunning. That’s how it looked 10 years ago. And that’s how it looked 20 years ago. Just 20 years ago, that lake didn’t exist. It was a solid glacier. A few years ago, a similar lake breached its dams and wreaked havoc in the valleys below. That destruction was caused by one glacier lake. We have 2,700 of them to contend with.
The point is this: my country and my people have done nothing to contribute to global warming, but we are already bearing the brunt of its consequences. And for a small, poor country, one that is landlocked and mountainous, it is very difficult. But we are not going to sit on our hands doing nothing. We will fight climate change. That’s why we have promised to remain carbon neutral.
We first made this promise in 2009 during COP 15 in Copenhagen, but nobody noticed. Governments were so busy arguing with one another and blaming each other for causing climate change that when a small country raised our hands and announced, “We promise to remain carbon neutral for all time,” nobody heard us. Nobody cared.
Last December in Paris, at COP 21, we reiterated our promise to remain carbon neutral for all time to come. This time, we were heard. We were noticed, and everybody cared. What was different in Paris was that governments came round together to accept the realities of climate change and were willing to come together and act together and work together. All countries, from the very small to the very large, committed to reduce the greenhouse gases emissions. The UN Framework Convention on Climate Change says that if these so-called intended commitments are kept, we’d be closer to containing global warming by two degrees Celsius.
By the way, I’ve requested the TED organizers here to turn up the heat in here by two degrees. So if some of you are feeling warmer than usual, you know who to blame.
It’s crucial that all of us keep our commitments. As far as Bhutan is concerned, we will keep our promise to remain carbon neutral. Here are some of the ways we are doing it. We are providing free electricity to our rural farmers. The idea is that, with free electricity, they will no longer have to use firewood to cook their food. We are investing in sustainable transport and subsidizing the purchase of electric vehicles. Similarly, we are subsidizing the cost of LED lights. And our entire government is trying to go paperless. We are cleaning up our entire country through Clean Bhutan, a national program, and we are planting trees throughout our country through Green Bhutan, another national program. But 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 our hot, subtropical jungles. Two years later, that same tiger was spotted near 4,000 meters in our cold, alpine mountains. Isn’t that awesome? We must keep it that way. We must keep our parks awesome.
So every year, we set aside resources to prevent poaching, hunting, mining, and pollution in our parks, and resources to help communities who live in those parks manage their forests, adapt to climate change, and lead better lives while continuing to live in harmony with Mother Nature. But that is expensive. Over the next few years, our small economy won’t have the resources to cover all the costs that are required to protect our environment. In fact, when we run the numbers, it looks like it’ll take us at least 15 years before we can fully finance all our conservation efforts. But neither Bhutan nor the world can afford to spend 15 years going backwards.
This is why His Majesty the King started Bhutan for Life. Bhutan for Life gives us the time we need. It gives us breathing room. It is essentially a funding mechanism to look after our parks, to protect our parks, till our government can take over on our own fully. The idea is to raise a transition fund from individual donors, corporations, and institutions, but the deal is closed only after predetermined conditions are met and all funds committed. So multiparty, single closing – an idea we borrowed from Wall Street. This means that individual donors can commit without having to worry that they’ll be left supporting an underfunded plan. It’s something like a Kickstarter project, only with a 15-year time horizon and millions of tons of carbon dioxide at stake. Once the deal is closed, we use the transition fund to protect our parks, giving our government time to increase our own funding gradually till the end of the 15-year period. After that, our government guarantees full funding forever. We are almost there. We expect to close later this year. Naturally, I’m pretty excited.
The World Wildlife Fund is our principal partner in this journey, and I want to give them a big shout-out for the excellent work they are doing in Bhutan and across the world.
Whew, it is getting warm in here.
I thank you for listening to our story, a story of how we are keeping our promise to remain carbon neutral, a story of how we are keeping our country pristine, for ourselves, our children, for your children, and for the world. But we are not here to tell stories, are we? We are here to dream together. So in closing, I’d like to share one more dream that I have.
What if we could mobilize our leadership and our resources, our influence and our passion, to replicate the Bhutan for Life idea to other countries so that they too can conserve their protected areas for all time? After all, there are many other countries who face the same issues that we face. They too have natural resources that can help win the world’s fight for sustainability, only they may not have the ability to invest in them now. So what if we set up Earth for Life, a global fund, to kick-start the Bhutan for Life throughout the world? I invite you to help me, to carry this dream beyond our borders to all those who care about our planet’s future. After all, we’re here to dream together, to work together, to fight climate change together, to protect our planet together, because the reality is, we are in it together. Some of us might dress differently, but we are in it together.
Thank you very much, and kadrinche la. Thank you.