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Abstract

Climate policy across the world is proceeding at a highly variable pace, with some places very committed to decarbonizing their economies and others just beginning. Emerging nations are generally just starting along this journey. However, among the few nation states that have pledged to achieve carbon neutrality, is Bhutan, a least developed country. Carbon neutrality is an ambitious climate policy that is increasingly being recognized as necessary in order to stabilize global temperature rise at 1.5°C. However, Bhutan is likely to face significant challenges in maintaining this status as the country balances its desire to grow in economic opportunities (GDP) and in human happiness (GNH). Little research has been conducted inside the policy processes to better understand how Bhutan will maintain carbon neutrality. Through open-ended, semi-structured interviews with key stakeholders, this study provides an inside view on the current situation and future challenges that Bhutan may face, along with the complexities associated with implementing and maintaining an ambitious carbon neutral policy. The paper highlights Bhutan's story and how it could be useful for policy learning and knowledge sharing, especially in the context of emerging nations’ climate governance.
Carbon neutral policy in action: A case of Bhutan
Climate policy across the world is proceeding at a highly variable pace, with some places very
committed to decarbonizing their economies and others just beginning. Emerging nations are generally
just starting along this journey. However, among the few nation states that have pledged to achieve
carbon neutrality, is Bhutan, a least developed country. Carbon neutrality is an ambitious climate policy
that is increasingly being recognized as necessary in order to stabilise global temperature rise at 1.5°C.
However, Bhutan is likely to face significant challenges in maintaining this status as the country
balances its desire to grow in economic opportunities (GDP) and in human happiness (GNH). Little
research has been conducted inside the policy processes to better understand how Bhutan will maintain
carbon neutrality. Through open-ended, semi-structured interviews with key stakeholders, this study
provides an inside view on the current situation and future challenges that Bhutan may face, along with
the complexities associated with implementing and maintaining an ambitious carbon neutral policy.
The paper highlights Bhutan’s story and how it could be useful for policy learning and knowledge
sharing, especially in the context of emerging nations’ climate governance.
Key policy insights
The pro-environmental Constitution of Bhutan and its Gross National Happiness (GNH)
strategy provide a unique institutional set up that enables ambitious climate policy innovation.
Bhutan’s forests and hydropower provide resource advantages that support a carbon neutral
pledge.
Bhutan’s carbon neutral commitment could be tested and challenged by rural-urban migration.
Complacency towards future challenges in upholding carbon neutrality is apparent and could
prevent the aggressive policy intervention that may be required.
Varying viewpoints are emerging that could hinder the formulation of appropriate policy
measures.
Keywords: Bhutan; carbon neutral; emission reduction; semi-structured interviews; developing
country; climate policy; challenges
1. Introduction
The international climate change negotiations have prompted countries to begin the process of
decarbonizing their economies, but they are yet to result in any significant reduction in global
carbon emissions. Even the 2015 Paris Agreement, which has attracted over 175 national
pledges to address climate change through Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs), has
been criticised as not being enough to achieve the emissions reduction required to hold global
temperature rise to “well below 2°C, let alone the ambitious 1.5°C target (Bushell, Buisson,
Workman, & Colley, 2017; Höhne et al., 2017). While it is broadly accepted that countries
need to transition their economies to a low carbon path in order to meet the challenge of climate
change (Mulugetta & Urban, 2010; Nishioka, 2016; Skea & Nishioka, 2008), some argue the
transition needs to go beyond this. Rogelj et al. (2015) suggest that global carbon neutrality is
needed by mid-century in order to stabilise temperature rise below 1.5°C. The
Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) Special Report on Global Warming of
1.5°C specifically focuses on how to achieve the 1.5°C target (IPCC, 2018). Rauland and
Newman (2015) also note that pursuing economy wide carbon neutrality will be vital to achieve
an 80% reduction in fossil fuel consumption by 2050, in line with the (IPCC, 2014)
recommendations for temperature stabilisation.
However, reducing emissions sufficiently is clearly a challenging task that requires both
reduction in energy services demand and switching to renewable energy sources, as well as
managing land in a way that enables carbon sinks to grow faster than carbon release.
Haszeldine, Flude, Johnson, and Scott (2018) go further to suggest deployment of negative
emission technologies and carbon capture and storage. Geels, Sovacool, Schwanen, and Sorrell
(2017b) have shown how the underlying factors contributing to the challenge of deep
decarbonisation are complex and interconnected within socio-economic systems. Nevertheless,
despite the challenges, numerous countries from around the world have made ambitious
commitments at the national level to dramatically reduce their carbon emissions. Examples of
these commitments are the ambitious pledges originally made by nine countries to achieve
carbon neutrality (Flagg, 2015). Bhutan, a least developed country, was among these original nine
nations (NEC, 2011). Most of the pledges were made during the 15th Conference of Parties
(COP15) in Copenhagen in 2009 (UNFCCC, 2009). While a global agreement was not
achieved at this particular COP, these commitments demonstrated the willingness for ambitious
action at the national level. Encouragingly, by COP23 in Bonn in 2017, the number of nations
that pledged to achieve carbon neutrality expanded to 15 (Carbon Neutrality Coalition, 2017)
and, at the time of writing, four more nations had joined the coalition
1
.
Fankhauser (2013) notes the importance for policy makers to cooperate and learn from one
another in order to achieve such a deep transformation. Nishioka (2016) argues that in-depth
case studies of nations who are able to demonstrate significant reductions have great potential
to influence and assist other countries in their transition. Flagg (2018) also highlights the
importance and possible role single nation case studies have in helping to better understand
contemporary climate change discourse and policy. Given that the nations that have pledged
for carbon neutrality are diverse in terms of development stage and country size, these could
provide useful lessons for a range of other countries.
Bhutan is a small country but is typical of many emerging countries that want to balance
and integrate the multiple development agendas of economic opportunity (measured by GDP),
human happiness (measured by Gross National Happiness GNH) and climate policy
(measured by greenhouse gases (GHG)). Bhutan was one of the first countries to declare its
intention to become, and remain, carbon neutral in perpetuity. This, then, provides an ideal case
study for pursuing how an emerging nation that wants to pursue economic growth and maintain
its GNH is likely to manage its carbon neutral status. A number of modelling studies have been
conducted on how Bhutan can manage this integrated approach to economic development
(Yangka & Newman, 2018) but no research has yet examined the policy process from the
inside, that is, from the perspective of those who are pulling the policy levers.
Through interviews with key stakeholders in Bhutan, this paper examines the current and
future challenges that Bhutan may face in upholding its ambitious climate policy, how prepared
the stakeholders are to address these challenges and what the opportunities and solutions may
be to ensure Bhutan maintains its carbon neutral status into the future. This paper contributes
to the climate change policy discourse by highlighting the complexities of pursuing carbon
neutral policy, especially in emerging countries seeking to pursue growth objectives. The paper
thus gives examples of areas that might need to be addressed by other countries pursuing
similar goals, particularly how perspectives from inside the policy process can help manage
climate change policy.
2. Background: Carbon Neutral Bhutan
Bhutan is a small Himalayan nation with less than 800,000 people sandwiched between the
world’s two most populous nations: India and China. The country is best known to the outside
world for its concept of Gross National Happiness (GNH), which is increasingly being
acknowledged in the international arena as an alternative development paradigm (Allison,
1
Climate Home News report: http://www.climatechangenews.com/2018/09/28/19-countries-team-go-carbon-
neutral/ (accessed on October 22, 2018)
2012; Brooks, 2013; R. Schroeder & Schroeder, 2014; Ura, 2015). The essence of GNH is to
balance four broad pillars: economic, social, environment and governance.
2
The four pillars
comprises nine domains, 33 indicators and 124 variables (Thinley, 2005; Ura, 2015). The origin
and overview of the GNH concept is provided elsewhere (Centre for Bhutan Studies, 2012;
Givel, 2015; Munro, 2016) and comprehensive details about GNH and its components and how
the GNH index is calculated are provided in Centre for Bhutan Studies (2012, 2016). In an
effort to embed the GNH principle into policy making and implementation, a GNH policy
screening tool was developed and introduced in 2008 by the Centre for Bhutan Studies. The
tool is now being used by the GNH Commission of Bhutan (the country’s national planning
agency), as well as by various national agencies (RGoB, 2015) with an aim to align proposed
policies to the GNH strategy.
The country’s GNH framework supports the carbon neutral goal; the interplay of these two
policy frameworks will be discussed in section 4.1. R. Schroeder and Schroeder (2014)
presented GNH as a development model that attempts to decouple economic growth from
environmental damage, which is relevant for the contemporary discourse on low emission
development (Newman, 2017). Since Bhutan’s 2009 pledge was made, a National Low Carbon
Strategy was put in place. In addition, maintaining carbon neutrality constitutes one of the
sixteen national key result areas under the present Eleventh five-year plan (RGoB, 2013).
Bhutan’s net forest cover, which is a cornerstone of the present carbon neutral status, has
been maintained at 71% over decades (Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry, 2017). Currently,
the Constitution of Bhutan mandates that the State maintain a minimum forest cover of 60%
into the future (RGoB, 2008). In order to meet and maintain the carbon neutral pledge, Bhutan
aims to keep its carbon emissions within the sink capacity of its forest cover, which has, until
now, been relatively easily achieved. For example, in 2014, Bhutan was responsible for 2.4
million tonnes of CO2 equivalent emissions (Yangka & Newman, 2018) a number far below
the sink capacity of 6.3 million tons (NEC, 2012).
However, considering that fossil fuel consumption from the transport and industry sectors
are rising rapidly as seen in Bhutan’s energy balance in 2005 and 2014 (Department of
Renewable Energy, 2015; DoE, 2007), the question arises around whether the country’s carbon
neutral status can be sustained at the same level of ease in the future by relying on its forest
cover alone. What impact will a changing climate and weather patterns have on the hydropower
generation, which remains the key source of energy? What role can, or will, the electricity
sector play in the future, particularly in helping to decarbonise? These and other challenges
will be examined in this paper.
3. Methodology
3.1. Interview design
Semi-structured interviews were used as the primary method for data collection in this study.
The interview consisted of 20 questions (see Appendix 2), which were conducted on sixteen
participants. Ten of the interviews were conducted in person. The remaining six interviews
were conducted electronically through emails.
3.2. Participant selection process
Key stakeholders were identified based on their official position and duties. The selected
participants were either executive or senior level officials working in the core agencies in
2
It should be noted that the exact wording/phrase for the four pillars varies in the literature, though not
substantively (see Appendix 1 for the lists adopted by various authors). The present study used the four
categorical words for simplicity, as they arguably capture the required dimensions.
Bhutan, such as the energy sector, forestry, industry, transport and environmental commission,
as well as international development partners. These key stakeholders were involved in
formulating and implementing national plans, climate change policy and governance of energy
in Bhutan. Stakeholders that participated in the study were coded as participant 1, 2, 3, etc.,
and those who did not consent to identify their organizations were coded as Agency 1, 2, 3, etc.
It should be noted that participant responses may not necessarily reflect their organisation’s
view. Table 1 lists the participants, their organisations and the mode of response.
A potential limitation of this study could be the lack of feedback from local municipality
stakeholders, market actors, national civil society groups or the general public, who were not
interviewed as part of the research.
3.3. Design of Questionnaire
The questions were open-ended to provide rich data and were flexible enough to invite and
incorporate additional questions and answers. Given the broad-based implications of carbon
neutrality, the list of questions may still fail to address some other pertinent issues. Considering
that Bhutan has already pledged for carbon neutrality and reaffirmed it in its NDC under the
Paris Agreement (UNFCCC, 2017), this study did not examine why Bhutan should be carbon
neutral, but rather focused on how carbon neutrality can be maintained. Some questions varied
between stakeholders as only relevant questions were asked to the concerned participants based
on their official duties and responsibilities.
3.4. Data analysis method
The interview data in this study were analysed with reference to the model proposed by Massey
(2011) who categorised data into three levels: articulated, attributional and emergent.
Articulated data are the direct responses to the questions raised; attributional data is the
information extracted through indirect questions attributed to priori hypothesis or theory; and
emergent data are the information that surfaces during the interview without any sort of direct
or indirect questions being asked (Massey, 2011). The analysis in the present study is focused
mostly on the articulated data and to a lesser degree on the emergent and attributional data.
Data were organised and analysed using NVivo Pro (version 11), a computer assisted
qualitative data analysis software developed and licensed by QSR International (Leech &
Onwuegbuzie, 2011). The nodes were classified to form the themes, which are presented in
section 4 with reference to relevant literature.
4. Results and Discussion
Twelve key themes were identified through the analysis, as presented below.
4.1. Policy Frameworks: Carbon Neutrality, Gross National Happiness and the
Sustainable Development Goals
In general, participants accepted the carbon neutral goal as ‘fully-in-sync’ with the GNH
paradigm, and considered the environmental pillar of GNH as a crucial enabler to leverage
carbon neutrality (participants 4, 7, 8, 13, 15). In the same way, carbon neutrality and low
carbon development were also seen as essential for upholding the environmental pillar of the
GNH paradigm (participants 3, 7, 13). Thus, there appears to be a positive feedback loop
between the carbon neutral goal and the GNH paradigm. Similarly, participant 3 argued that
human growth has to co-exist with the environment pointing out that from a GNH perspective,
the environment is one of the key components to achieve a happy and sustainable country in
the long term. Carbon neutrality was also associated with green growth and sustainable
development, not just cutting emissions (participants 6, 13). This is in line with Yangka,
Newman, Rauland, and Devereux (2018), who propose a three G model - GDP, GNH and
GHG’s – as a way to develop Bhutan sustainably into the future.
On the relationship between GNH and the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs),
participants (7, 13, 15) agreed that they are similar and complement each other, and remarked
that Bhutan is in a strong position to pursue them. Bhutan’s readiness to address the SDGs has
been attributed to its GNH philosophy (Wangmo, 2016), with Bhutan expected to prioritise
three SDGs - Climate Change, Poverty Reduction and Life on Land - as accelerators for others
(participant 7). Considering possible complementarity, participant 15 stated that, in the era of
the SDGs, there could be an opportunity to achieve GNH in a progressive, innovative and
positive way.
4.2. Institutional issues
A variety of institutional issues were identified by the participants. These issues were around
the existing governance regime, such as the country’s laws, regulations and policies, and the
organisational set up that steers socio-economic activity, especially those aspects that have a
direct impact on the low carbon strategy. Most participants noted that a legislative framework
and policies are already in place and there is a strong political will that can sustain carbon
neutrality for a long time to come. For instance, the pro-environmental provisions of the
Constitution of Bhutan were seen as a platform to enable carbon neutrality (participants 3, 4,
7, 13).
The vehicle quota system in Bhutan (waived import duty for senior government officials)
was highlighted as negating the motto behind the vehicle taxation system i.e. levying heavy
tax on fossil fuelled vehicles and no tax for electric cars (participant 13). The need for
interventions in the face of the growing industry and transport sectors was also highlighted
(participants 6, 10, 11, 13, 14).
4.3. Human resource and climate financing issues
The need for large-scale investment to facilitate a low carbon transition is well understood
(Hall, Foxon, & Bolton, 2015; Mulugetta & Urban, 2010), and was pointed out by many
participants in this study as a key challenge for Bhutan. In particular, the need to fulfil
competing socio-economic development needs was highlighted (Participants 7, 13) in light of
financing requirements for carbon neutrality. Human resource constraints were identified in
the areas of accessing international finance and in using and applying computer aided planning
tools (i.e. a lack of staff and/or skills in these two areas), while other respondents either
dismissed or did not acknowledge such constraints.
However, participants had different viewpoints on how to garner the financial support
required. Participants (2, 6, 8, 10, 15) noted that international development partners (eg Japan
International Cooperation Agency) are keen to lend support for a carbon neutral Bhutan.
Participants (7, 13) shared the difficulties of securing climate finance, and further mentioned
that significant financial contributions will still be required from the Government of Bhutan.
To this end, participant 15 suggested that Bhutan should no longer look at development partners
as sources of finances, but rather lean on their technical expertise to gain access to other
sources. Nonetheless, a few financing windows were highlighted such as BIOFIN, the
Biodiversity Finance initiative of the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) that
aims to address financing issues in biodiversity conservation through global partnership
(participant 15), ‘Bhutan for Life Initiative’, a transition fund mechanism at the national level
for supporting conservation efforts in Bhutan (participants 2, 7), Payment for Environmental
Services (PES) schemes for maintaining the watershed area for the sustainability of the
hydropower sector (participant 4, 12) and ecotourism (participant 7).
Regarding the possibility of an Emissions Trading Scheme (ETS) in Bhutan, participants
(7, 15) encouraged exploring it, while another (13) rejected it due to the small potential market
in Bhutan. However, the Asian Development Bank (ADB, 2016) considers an ETS as an
efficient mitigation measure and recommends Asian countries explore this option.
Surprisingly, participants (7, 13) acknowledged that Bhutan has not carried out any cost
estimation to sustain their carbon neutral goal, and studies suggest that Bhutan may face
challenges due to human resource and financial constraint (Yangka & Newman, 2018).
4.4. Planning tools and the GNH policy screening tool
Understanding the complex interaction between energy, economy and environment demands
the use of analytical tools. However, the interviews revealed a lack of modelling expertise and
experience (participants 2, 4, 7, 13, 16), as do previous studies of Bhutan, except for a passing
remark from a participant on future work on a Computable Generable Equilibrium model to be
used by the World Bank to assess Bhutan’s NDC. While having access to a planning tool in
itself may not enable carbon neutrality, integrated assessment models are widely applied to
quantify future challenges and explore plausible solutions through scenario formulation
(Nakata, Silva, & Rodionov, 2011; Nishioka, 2016; van Vuuren et al., 2016). Participants (2,
4, 7) reflected on the GNH policy screening tool as being used to align projects and policies
towards the GNH strategy by involving a minimum of 15 multi-stakeholders (RGoB, 2015).
This could be considered an important area for Bhutan. Considering that only three participants
(2, 4, 7) referred to the GNH policy screening tool when discussing planning tools, it appears
to support K. Schroeder (2015) observation that this policy tool is not used by many of the sub-
national actors. However, given that the screening tool is for policy appraisal, not evaluation,
it may not necessarily be used by everyone involved at the operational level. In fact, those at
the sub-national level use the simple GNH checklistwith a view to aligning development
activities to the GNH vision (Centre for Bhutan Studies, 2016).
4.5. Topography and urbanisation
The country’s topography is seen as an enabler to harness hydropower with minimal socio-
environmental impact, but as a barrier for rail-based transport systems, which is argued to be
crucial for decarbonising and decongesting road transport (Newman, 2015; Newman &
Kenworthy, 2015). While Bhutan’s small population can be considered as an advantage in
maintaining carbon neutrality long-term, some participants (10, 14) see this factor as a barrier,
due to low population density. Despite a small population, rural-urban migration is leading to
rapid urbanisation in Bhutan, which is expected to reach 77% by 2040 (ADB, 2011). This
emerged as a contested issue amongst stakeholders interviewed, though no direct questions
were posed on this issue. For example, participant 6 expressed concern over urbanization and
rural to urban migration as a threat due to the expected change in people’s lifestyles, while
others (participants 4, 5, 16) argued that farmland left fallow in the abandoned villages is
already turning into forest cover which ultimately increases the carbon sink capacity. It is also
obvious that leaving farmland fallow is a direct threat to food security, which was not expressed
by the participants. Notwithstanding this, participant 13 expressed the need for smart and
localised city designs as Bhutan urbanises into the future. This highlights how the same issue
can be considered either an enabler or a barrier depending on the context. These differing
opinions also point towards different sectoral positions and siloed approaches for dealing with
policy, highlighting potential challenges to navigating the carbon neutral pathway.
4.6. Transport and Industry sector
In Bhutan, the transport and manufacturing industries are emerging as main sources of carbon
emissions due to their reliance on fossil fuels (NEC, 2012; Yangka & Newman, 2018). In
keeping with this, participants (2, 11, 13) touched on the importance of cleaner production
initiatives in the manufacturing industries. One such successful demonstration was carried out
in 2004, which was discontinued due to lack of funds (participant 11). This reflects the
challenges to financing (see section 4.3). Concerns over the possible negative impact of
planned economic zones (industrial development areas in the southern foothills of Bhutan) and
mineral development and extraction (participant 2, 11, 13) on Bhutan’s emissions level were
raised. While the participants acknowledged that much will depend on the policy decision to
either go for green industries or to continue with highly polluting industry sectors, the economic
development policy remains silent on this pertinent issue (RGoB, 2016).
Participants (2, 4, 8, 10, 14) expressed the need to promote electric cars and to advance
public bus transportation by improving commuters’ accessibility. Participant 8 argued
optimistically that it wouldn’t be a significant task to phase out fossil fuelled buses and replace
these with electric ones considering the small numbers of buses in Bhutan. Conversely,
participant 2 cautioned that it is getting late for modal shifting in the passenger transport, but
that the younger generation may opt for public transport if it is made efficient. With regard to
a light rail transport system, some participants (8, 10) shared their optimistic viewpoint, while
participant 14 expressed concern over its feasibility given Bhutan’s small population. This is
yet another issue with divergent viewpoints, indicating potential challenges towards sustaining
the ambitious climate goal. The possibility of constructing tunnels through the mountains for a
shorter transportation distance to reduce fuel consumption and emissions was also expressed
(participant 2).
Beyond this, participant 16 envisioned a Hydrogen future for fuelling the transport sector
in Bhutan. However, at this juncture, no serious undertakings in this direction can be observed
in Bhutan. Moreover, visions for hydrogen-based transport systems seem too far away
(Whitmarsh & Wietschel, 2008) and it appears that only end-users perceive it to be a feasible
technology, as there are still significant supply side challenges (Kontogianni, Tourkolias, &
Papageorgiou, 2013).
4.7. Transitioning economy
Statistical data from the National Statistical Bureau (NSB, 2004, 2017) show that Bhutan is
currently transitioning away from a traditional agrarian and forestry based economy towards a
more a market based modern economic system, which is likely to result in an increase in carbon
emissions. Such socio-economic transitions are a key challenge for Bhutan. For example, the
IPAT (Impact = Population*Affluence*Technology) identity (Ehrlich & Holdren, 1971; York,
Rosa, & Dietz, 2003) and the Kaya Identity (IPCC, 2000; Kaya, 1990), which are widely used
as analytical frameworks for assessing environmental impacts and their drivers, often correlate
increasing per capita GDP and population with rising emissions. In Bhutan, per capita GDP
increased from US$834 in 2003 (NSB, 2004) to US$2,879 in 2016 (NSB, 2017), and will
continue to increase as Bhutan aspires to become a middle-income country by 2023, leading to
an increase in emissions, without significant intervention.
Rising consumerism was seen as a threat to maintaining carbon neutrality (participant 2)
and, not surprisingly, was also noted as a threat to the GNH principle (Brooks, 2013; Hayden,
2015). Similarly, touching on the problem with taking a myopic approach to development,
participant 15 noted that ‘development that creates jobs and ultimately destroys the
environment will not achieve happiness; it might make people wealthier in the short term, but
it certainly won't make the next generation any wealthier and any happier’. However,
participants (11, 13, 15) noted that Bhutan’s current emissions are far lower than their sink
capacity, suggesting that there is adequate ‘development space’ (Yedla & Garg, 2014) for
economic growth as the country aspires to become a middle-income country.
4.8. Role of and issues with hydropower
There appears to be much reliance on hydropower, forest cover and a small population for
Bhutan to maintain carbon neutrality. Participant 3 proudly acknowledged hydropower as
playing a ‘singular key role’ and having a ‘domino effect’. Complementing this, participants
(4, 5) argued that the advent of hydropower development had led to forest regeneration through
less use of firewood. Participants (13, 15), however, argued that while hydropower helps in
reducing emissions from electricity generation, it does not increase the carbon sink capacity,
and further cautioned about the risk of relying on a relative mono-economy that is, an
economy affected by a single economic sector hydropower, in the case of Bhutan.
Notwithstanding the divergent viewpoints, the literature shows that hydropower as a
renewable energy source also has its own share of criticism. For instance, some research argues
that the decomposition of submerged vegetation from hydropower dams contributes to methane
and CO2 emissions (S. Li, Wang, Zhou, Cheng, & Wang, 2018; Zarfl, Lumsdon, Berlekamp,
Tydecks, & Tockner, 2015). Based on emissions data from 85 hydroelectric dams with global
distribution, Barros et al. (2011) identify that emissions are lower in high latitude and temperate
regions compared to those in tropical regions. Thus, given that Bhutan is a temperate country
located far from the equator and high up in the Himalayas, emissions are likely to be lower
than other regions. Bhutanese hydropower developers also carry out compensatory tree
plantation in lieu of forest removal during construction. Hydropower in Bhutan also primarily
consists of run-of-the-river schemes with no large reservoirs to store water. Nevertheless, it is
likely that emissions would still occur from the decomposition of vegetation in the dams, as
well as embodied emissions from construction materials (participant 2).
Based on concerns over intermittency, high cost and low plant load factor
3
, participants
(3, 4, 5) dismissed and discouraged electricity generation from non-hydro renewable energy
sources. Others, however, argued that the absence of a feed-in-tariff policy was a barrier to
promoting non-hydro renewable energy (participants 1, 2, 9). On the socio-environmental
impact of hydropower, participants (4, 5, 16) argued that hydropower dams in Bhutan are
located in deep gorges where there are no or fewer human settlements, and that they are
nowhere near the size of dams in neighbouring countries. It was also pointed out that service
delivery in terms of efficiency and reliability of the electricity transmission and distribution
systems could be improved further to encourage end-users to switch towards clean electricity
(participants 1, 4, 9). Issues around the impact of climate change on hydropower are discussed
further in section 4.11.
4.9. Conflict with ecotourism
Hydropower has also been identified in the literature as being in potential conflict with
ecotourism, which is considered as an emerging source of finance for Bhutan (participant 7).
For instance, Fletcher (2010) highlights the ongoing debate between dam builders and
ecotourism operators, notably white-water kayaking operators in Costa Rica - a country that
has also pledged to be carbon neutral by 2021 and which also largely relies on its hydropower
for clean electricity. He argues that this debate is a conflict between two different efforts to
capitalise on water resources, rather than between capitalism and conservation, but cautions
that promoting hydropower as an effective climate change mitigation policy is exacerbating
this conflict. While the interview results did not identify these conflicts, there is potential for
them to arise in the future, given that both the tourism and hydropower sectors contribute
significantly to Bhutan’s GDP. At the same time, both these sectors also operate within the
policy framework of minimal environmental damage, that is, ‘high value, low impact’ for
tourism and run-of-the-river schemes for hydropower.
3
The percentile value of the actual generation to the rated generation capacity of a power plant.
The role of Bhutan’s GNH screening tool, which to date had been dealing with new policy
issues one at a time, could be used to examine a macro-comparison between these two crucial
activities and policies. With regard to emissions from international travel (including tourism),
these are usually excluded from national GHG inventories (IPCC, 2006), though Flagg (2018)
raised concerns about this issue for Costa Rica. In Bhutan, emissions from jet fuels used in
aviation are included under the transport sector (NEC, 2011), though not disaggregated into
tourist and non-tourist shares due to data paucity. Interestingly, these issues identified in the
literature did not emerge during the interviews.
4.10. Forest cover and carbon accounting issues
Bhutan’s constitution mandates the state to maintain a minimum forest cover of 60% and at
present it stands at 71% (Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry, 2017). The concept of ‘forest
as the baseline’ (participants 13, 15), confirms the importance of Bhutan’s forests to sustain
carbon neutrality. Participant 12 suggested to bring degraded and barren land under tree
plantations to increase forest cover, but cautioned on the cost to forest conservation, which is
being experienced by villages in the form of human-wildlife conflict.
4
The same participant
highlighted the existence of compensatory mechanisms, where trees will need to be planted to
compensate for forest land converted to other land uses (i.e. infrastructure development).
Participant 6 cautioned against the possible reduction in sequestration capacity due to aging
forests. To address this issue, participant 12 suggested increasing sustainable forest
management practices, stating that:
‘Bhutan could remain carbon neutral provided we are able to manage our forest on the
principles of sustainability and other sectors take actions on mitigation [reduction] of
greenhouse gases’.
Notwithstanding its crucial role, forest carbon sequestration is also a highly contested issue
similar to that for hydropower. For example, the actual amount of carbon sequestration depends
on the forest growth rate, soil carbon cycle and temperature of the forest site (van Kooten,
2017), and is impacted by worldviews on the relationship between environment and
development (Bääckstrand & Löövbrand, 2006).
In the agriculture sector, farm mechanisation was seen as supporting carbon neutrality
through land intensification, thereby avoiding conversion of forest land to agricultural land
(participant 12).
4.11. Climate change impacts
The impact of climate change is widely recognized as threatening the core economic activities
of Bhutan such as forestry, agriculture, tourism and hydropower (Hoy, Katel, Thapa, Dendup,
& Matschullat, 2015; NEC, 2011). An apparent paradox is that Bhutan relies on forest cover
and hydropower potential for its carbon neutrality status, but these are at risk of climate induced
damages. There are studies that highlight glacier retreat and a decrease in precipitation levels
in the Himalayas (H. Li, Xu, Beldring, Tallaksen, & Jain, 2016). Surprisingly, participants (4,
5) do not envisage any near- to medium-term climate induced problems for hydropower. In
fact, participants (3, 4) believed that there would be no definitive outcome of climate change
impact in the Himalayas, in particular on hydropower. Participants (1, 3, 5, 9, 16) believed that
reservoir hydropower could be built to mitigate the impacts of changing hydrology in the event
of acute climate change impacts. These issues highlight a need for support to undertake more
international research on these issues including how they could impact on Bhutan. Climate
change is also expected to cause disruption to ecosystems, and thus potentially increasing
human-wildlife conflict in Bhutan (Hoy, et al., 2015).
4
Wildlife encroaching onto farmland and destroying crops undermining rural livelihood
4.12. Other concerns
During the interview process, emergent data arose from some of the participants. For instance,
participants (4, 13) raised concern over economic growth and equitable development, pointing
out that only a handful of shareholders benefit from dirty and heavily polluting industrial
development, and argued that economic development need not necessarily be industrial growth.
Creating a sufficient number of jobs quickly in sustainable enterprises and the need for
economic diversification, were noted as a key challenge that Bhutan may face in the near future
(participant 15). Furthermore, concerns were raised around Bhutan not deriving sufficient
national benefits from its efforts to contribute to the global environment (participant 2). In this
vein, participant 4 pointed out that:
‘Sometimes we go off, slightly more ambitious in our commitments to the external
world, we offer more and that is the scary part. Let’s be happy that we are carbon neutral
and have 60% forest cover. We may overdo it. Set [an] example? - I think the world is
too large for us. Let’s get better off! The fear is trying to say we will do more, I think
will be a disservice to the Bhutanese people’.
5. Sustaining carbon neutrality
Sections 4.1 through 4.12 highlighted the issues that shed light on the challenges and plausible
solutions to sustain Bhutan’s carbon neutrality. These are summarised in the following
sections.
5.1. Challenges to sustain carbon neutrality
The concept of carbon neutrality has been characterised as an idealised emission reduction
strategy (Birchall, 2014), suggesting significant challenges to its implementation and ultimate
achievement. Fankhauser (2013) identifies the challenges for low carbon growth as the need to
have a strong legal basis and a credible roadmap with implementation plans, along with the
need to manage wider socio-economic consequences. Low carbon transition is recognised as
highly contested and disruptive (Geels, Sovacool, Schwanen, & Sorrell, 2017a) and filled with
socio-environmental conflicts (Weber & Cabras, 2017). The interview responses discussed in
sections 4.1 through 4.12 touched on many of these challenges, and they are grouped into two
broad dimensions: areas where respondents agreed and other areas where their viewpoints
diverged (see Table 2). Despite some disagreement among the stakeholders, there was no
evidence of potential conflicting views between a participant and his/her agency, although
some of them cautioned on this issue prior to the interview process.
Where participants’ viewpoints aligned or diverged, Table 2 highlights some of the
potential challenges and solutions that could enable or hinder implementation of carbon neutral
policy. Any areas of concern raised only by a single participant (for example, issues around
ageing trees on carbon sequestration) are not listed in the table. While numerous issues were
identified through the interview process on the future challenges of sustaining carbon
neutrality, it is also evident that several potential issues identified in the literature were neither
raised nor discussed among many of the stakeholders. This neglect could emerge as a potential
risk, as highlighted by Fankhauser (2013) around the need for policy competence. It seems that
the key challenge would be to strengthen those areas of agreements and address those areas of
disagreement. Examples of areas of agreement include that financial support is required and
that transport and manufacturing industries are major emitters, while areas still in contention
include the need for an emission trading scheme and whether intervention is even required.
5.2. Solutions to assist with upholding carbon neutrality into the future
As outlined in Table 2, there were several areas where respondents agreed. Much optimism
seems to arise from the forest cover and hydropower potential, which underpin Bhutan’s carbon
neutral pledge. These two factors are perhaps the key internal determinants, which could be
labelled as the ‘resource advantages’ for Bhutan in the context of carbon neutral development
offsetting and avoiding emissions - that support its ambitious climate policy innovation and
implementation.
Not surprisingly, the GNH strategy and the pro-environmental provisions of the
Constitution of Bhutan support the goal of carbon neutral development. In fact, it appears that
the GNH strategy has been effective in instilling environmentally benign policies in Bhutan, in
that the environmental pillar of GNH consists of several variables to account for ecological
diversity and resilience. In brief, it can be argued that the two strategies taken together form a
powerful legislative framework creating a conducive environment to navigate the carbon
neutral pathway. These are unique internal determinants which, when complemented by the
two resource advantages, make up a formidable combination for Bhutan to pursue and sustain
carbon neutrality into the future. The case of Costa Rica is a close comparison (see Flagg (2018)
for details).
Despite being hopeful, there is a need for policy intervention to ensure Bhutan’s
development remains on a low carbon trajectory. Options such as phasing out traditional
bioenergy in the building sector, accelerating electric transport and exploring industrial
symbiosis were demonstrated through a long term energy-economy modelling study (Yangka
& Newman, 2018). Similar initiatives have also been highlighted in the literature (Government
of India, 2014; Newman, 2015; Shakya & Shrestha, 2011; Shrestha, Ahmed, Suphachalasai, &
Lasco, 2013). Beyond the technological solutions, the need to raise awareness about the
impacts of GHG emissions among the general public was also suggested. Although
afforestation, including bringing more forest cover under sustainable forest management,
provides a promising approach for ensuring carbon neutrality, Bhutan should also take stock
of the potential unintended consequences of forest conservation and aggressive hydropower
development.
In light of the termination of carbon neutral programmes in New Zealand due to changes
to leadership (Birchall, 2014), continuity of ‘strong political will’ seems essential. Research
has also found that political stability, rule of law and control of corruption can have a mitigating
effect on carbon emissions (Gani, 2012).
Considering that financial constraints emerged as one of the key challenges for Bhutan,
exploring the long-term sustainability of the ‘Bhutan for Life Initiative’, and vigorous analysis
of ‘BIOFIN’ to garner available funding could help to address this. PES activities could be
expanded to provide financial support to communities living in and around the catchment area
of the riverine system for good health of the hydropower sector.
It is clear that the electricity sector is going to play a much greater role in the future in terms
of providing energy to households and for electric transport. If the primary source of electricity
continues to be hydropower, this will ensure emissions are kept low and help to maintain
carbon neutrality, particularly as demand for these services increase.
6. Conclusion
This study has ventured inside the policy making and implementation process in Bhutan that
has been given the task of balancing and integrating the multiple objectives of GDP, GNH and
GHG mitigation. The interviews highlight that respondents are acutely aware that Bhutan is
providing an example of what other countries will need to strive for in the coming years.
However, they are also intent on maintaining growth in GDP and GNH which may impact on
their ability to continue with the carbon neutral status. Various challenges were discussed
around upholding carbon neutrality in Bhutan in the long term, without more ambitious low
carbon interventions. The desire to leave climate policy as it is, without any change, is the
easiest way forward in the short term for those dealing with complex trade-offs in development
policy. However, in the long term, all participants noted the need to find solutions that could
simultaneously improve the economy and happiness of Bhutan, as well as maintain its carbon
neutrality.
The core policy options continue to be maintaining forest cover and increasing the amount
of clean hydroelectricity, backed up by continuing strong political will and legislative
framework. The extra interventions required in industry and transport to decarbonise
development are likely to be a test for policy makers as they are not yet able to see how this
can be done without impacting on the other goals. If policy makers remain complacent about
the potential challenges and opportunities that are likely to be associated with these
interventions, this could undermine Bhutan’s ability to uphold its ambitious climate policy.
The interviews also revealed some divergent viewpoints among the participants that have
the potential to hinder the formulation of appropriate policy measures to meet future
challenges. The divergent viewpoints call for effective consultation and collaboration among
various stakeholders within different sectoral positions.
Contemporary socio-economic issues such as the need to create employment and equitable
income growth also emerged. Some even cautioned that Bhutan’s over-commitment to the
environment could potentially be a disservice to the Bhutanese people. All this suggests
challenges to integrating the three aforementioned core goals.
The findings of this paper could form the basis for future research that could also explore
the views of civil society, the general public and private sector stakeholders (not included in
this study). This would likely reveal other challenges in Bhutan’s carbon neutral journey,
particularly around adoption of new behaviours and technologies.
While this study was specific to Bhutan, the likely challenges and plausible solutions
identified, as well as the broader socio-economic issues that emerged during the interviews,
are likely to be relevant to other countries aspiring to implement ambitious climate policies,
while also growing their economies. Examining how Bhutan maintains its carbon neutral path
on the ground will provide many lessons to other countries, not only for developing countries
who may want to adopt such ambitious goals, but also to the industrialized world.
Conflict of Interest
The authors declare no conflict of interest. The funding sponsors had no role in the design of
the study; in the collection, analyses, or interpretation of data; in the writing of the manuscript,
and in the decision to publish the results.
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... The modelling of Bhutan's future suggests it will need to develop a CN strategy that can avoid the structural path dependence and lock-in of carbon intensive infrastructure by enabling new CN technologies for simultaneous growth in GDP and GNH with reductions in GHG. Such changes should not be too di cult though concerted efforts may be required such as to identify potential barriers to deploy these options and seek access to nance [49]. Such development issues are central to the future planning of any emerging nation and this study shows that it is possible to maintain CN status under both low and high growth pressures. ...
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Background: Bhutan has pledged to remain carbon neutral (CN) in perpetuity. Whether they can sustain this is questionable due to the country’s increasing economic growth (GDP) and commitment to gross national happiness (GNH) outcomes, both of which can lead to a rise in greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. The nexus between GHG, GNH and GDP is the essence of the Paris Agreement and Sustainable Development Goals global project. Results: Through scenario modelling using the Long-range Energy Alternative Planning (LEAP) model, the study finds that the carbon neutral declaration will derail between 2037 and 2050 without mitigation measures. By putting in place mitigation measures especially in the industry and transport sectors, CN can be retained even under high growth pressure, which may cost just 2% of GDP. CN can be easily retained under low economic growth, but this could undermine GNH. High growth will require immediate interventions to enable electrification of industry and transport. Conclusions: The options to remain CN will require Bhutan to adopt more efficient technologies and electrify industry and transport under both low and high growth scenarios. The additional cost to the Bhutanese economy is feasible through low and high growth opportunities. The options are similar to those confronting emerging nations struggling with issues of climate commitments under economic growth pressures. All will need to adapt their specific economic contexts to achieve the simultaneous objectives of the Sustainable Development Goals whilst addressing the net zero Paris agenda. Bhutan shows it is possible.
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