November 12, 2021 | ACTIVE LIFE | By Iris Guo | Illustration by the author | Photo courtesy of Adli Wahid
The United Nations, for nearly three decades, has been bringing together almost every country on earth for global climate summits. These Conferences of the Parties (COPs) have served as pivotal moments where countries large and small have made pledges to reduce emissions and asserted their nationhood.
This year is the twenty-sixth annual summit — COP26, in Glasgow. COP26, delayed by a year due to the pandemic, ends on Nov. 12. The timing of COP26 is particularly important.
The summit follows the 2021 Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report which emphasizes urgent, unprecedented action to achieve a 1.5-degree-target of warming —a temperature that largely avoids the worst impacts of climate change.
Small and least developed counties (LDCs) are demanding climate accountability by the world’s largest nation states who disproportionately contribute to climate change. As these demands are made, we can look towards LDC countries to help inform climate and conservation decisions.
Bhutan, located in the Eastern Himalayas, and sandwiched between two of the most populated countries on Earth: China and India, is one such LDC.
Bhutan, is arguably one of the world’s greenest and happiest countries today. Being the first carbon negative country, Bhutan takes more greenhouse gases from the atmosphere than it emits.
The evolving environmental policies in Bhutan offer global perspectives on how domestic circumstances can affect efforts at global environmental protection. So how does Bhutan, as one of the smallest economies in the world, with a Gross Domestic Product (GDP) of less than two billion dollars, serve as an example for environmental protection?
Bhutan’s measurement of development stands in contrast with other countries. Back in the 1970s, the fourth king of Bhutan pronounced that Gross National Happiness was more important than GDP, a pioneering vision that aims to improve the happiness and well-being of the people. Within Bhutan’s 2008 national constitution, the government pledged to protect, conserve and improve its pristine environment and safeguard the biodiversity of the country.
More than 50% of Bhutan’s land area is protected in national parks, nature reserves and biological corridors and more than 60% of the country is covered by natural forests. Bhutan’s unique way of addressing environmental issues evokes questions from the rest of the world: is compromising the natural environment the only way to develop the economy?
Buddhism, as the traditional cultural norm, influences environmental values and has played a big role in shaping Bhutan’s environmental approaches. Buddhism aspires to deeply perceive the interdependence of all things and events; in other words, all actions should bring the most help and least harm to other sentient beings.
The Middle Path in Buddhism is described as the path of moderation. To Buddhists, it signifies a path of wisdom which strikes a balance between the two extremes of self-indulgence and self-mortification. Bhutan articulates the idea of the Middle Path through the Middle Path strategy — the country’s national environmental strategy. It posits that natural resources, such as air, water, biodiversity, soil, minerals, and forest, shall not be compromised for economic development.
Based on the Middle Path Strategy, economic development and environmental conservation receive equal priority. The Middle Path, importantly, requires collective effort and compassion for people, animals, plants to make a contribution to the entire world.
Admittedly, to apply the concept of “interconnectedness” and Buddhist values in the United States and other Western, secular countries might be difficult, as there is a lack of collectivist, cohesive spiritual values rooted in mainstream Western culture.
While Bhutan’s Buddhist thinking may be hard to apply on the large scale in other countries, its widespread conservation and ethics towards nature might help inform the world’s larger, industrialized nations. As we move forward past COP26 and into an uncertain climate future, the example of Bhutan makes the point that the smaller nation states should be listened to: they have a lot to say.