How Bhutan Built Conservation Finance into its DNA

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Tiny Bhutan has a claim to fame as the first and only country that can claim to be not only carbon neutral but dramatically carbon negative. Conservation is wrapped in with the national ideal of ‘gross national happiness’, a pillar of the country’s constitution and fundamental to national planning.

One day in February 2016, Tshering Tobgay took to the stage in Vancouver to deliver a TedTalk.

Articulate, charming and genuinely funny, the then-prime minister of Bhutan had the audience eating out of his hand within minutes. He started by lightly mocking the Bhutanese national dress he was wearing – “like our women, we men get to wear pretty bright colours, but unlike our women, we get to show off our legs” – and then set about telling a story about his tiny home country, a mountainous kingdom of just 700,000 people landlocked between China and India.

There was quite a story to tell: about ‘gross national happiness’, the idealistic development framework Bhutan’s fourth king coined in the 1970s, and which continues to shape policy today; the fact that 71% of the country’s land is under forest cover and that it is a cornerstone of the constitution that the figure many never fall below 60%; and, most of all, that Bhutan is not only carbon neutral but carbon negative, absorbing four times as much carbon dioxide in its forests as the nation generates, even before factoring in the offset effect of the renewable energy the country sells to India. It has even banned the sale of cigarettes.

Accompanied by increasing applause, Tobgay cheekily informed the crowd that he had had the temperature cranked up by two degrees before starting to save on the air conditioning. He then he left the stage.

Sitting in his living room in the hills above the capital of Thimphu in late September, Tobgay – who stepped down as prime minister last year but who retains a role as an environmentalist and advocate – shakes his head in disbelief when he recalls what followed. The talk has been viewed about three million times on various platforms – and that was just the start.  “I am actually overwhelmed by the response,” he says. “I have had literally thousands of people write in to say how can they help, what can they do in their own communities. There were people listening to the talk who otherwise didn’t know where Bhutan was at all.”

But, even if the crowd was surprised to learn of this mysterious green kingdom, Bhutan’s unique incorporation of environmental protection into its whole economic model was nothing new – it has been underway for more than 40 years.

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Chris Wright
Chris Wright
Chris is a journalist specialising in business and financial journalism across Asia, Australia and the Middle East. He is Asia editor for Euromoney magazine and has written for publications including the Financial Times, Institutional Investor, Forbes, Asiamoney, the Australian Financial Review, Discovery Channel Magazine, Qantas: The Australian Way and BRW. He is the author of No More Worlds to Conquer, published by HarperCollins.

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