Almost all countries are, of course, carbon positive, meaning their total greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions are anything higher than zero. Plenty of countries are hoping to decarbonize and become carbon neutral nations as soon as possible, but with the exception of very small island nations, this essentially hasn’t happened yet.
That sovereign carbon sink, ladies and gentlemen, is Bhutan. So what’s going on here, exactly - and is it the only carbon negative nation on Earth?
As pointed out by the Climate Council – the independent remnants of the Australian government’s now-abolished Climate Commission – Bhutan has a unique set of circumstances in its favor. It is a tiny, mountainous, non-industrialized nation home to around 800,000 people, which means demands for electricity and energy are comparatively low.
At the same time, it utilizes its extensive river network to generate a heck of a lot of hydroelectricity, even if the insubstantial electrical grid always gets it to where it’s needed. It exports plenty of this electricity too.
Rather magnificently, the majority of the country is covered in a rich, biodiverse forest, which helps to soak up the small amount of carbon dioxide emissions that escape skyward. Aware of how precious this multifaceted resource is, legislation also demands that, at an absolute minimum, 60 percent of the country’s total land area must be forested at all times.
It’s worth mentioning that a huge investment in electric cars, stringent environmental protection laws, as well as community-led forestry management supported by the authorities, certainly lend a hand too. As National Geographic put it, “Bhutan has built sustainability into its national identity.”
Inspiring as this may be in isolation, Bhutan’s circumstances are, of course, idiosyncratic. Each country’s electrical grid and energy infrastructure is different.
Smaller populations, access to hydroelectric (see: Portugal) and geothermal (see: Iceland) power sources, a well-built grid, a lower reliance on petroleum-chugging transportation, a policy path to decarbonization, substantial forest cover, sustainable agriculture, an uncomplicated economic situation, and more all help a country have a smaller carbon footprint than others.
Investing in universally accessible solar and wind power generation systems obviously helps, and it is tentatively possible for much larger, industrialized, populous nations to get to 100 percent renewables. The proliferation of clean energy doesn’t mean you’ll get close to carbon neutral though – you might need nuclear power and carbon capture systems too. Besides, what about all that petroleum used in transportation?
So, in sum, what Bhutan is doing is marvelous, and its environmentally sensitive policies are to be learned from by any nation. Getting more countries to go even carbon neutral, however, let alone carbon negative, is a lot more complicated than it may seem.
Speaking of which, the World Resources Institute (WRI) has a marvelous tool for finding out the total GHG emissions of any country, which includes forestry and land-use changes that may affect the net sum. Bhutan is listed as having -2.26 million tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent emissions as of 2014, but it’s not alone.
Gabon, Romania, and Chile are also listed as having negative net GHG emissions, with land-use changes and forest cover being listed by the WRI as being the reason, the same as Bhutan - and that's not all.
Research analyst Mengpin Ge told IFLScience: “In their national climate plans quite a few countries claim to be a net sink of emissions, such as Seychelles, Mali, Benin, Liberia, Guyana, Myanmar, Sao Tome and Principe, Zimbabwe, Madagascar, Niger and Bhutan. Their inventories reported to UNFCCC does show negative emissions.”
So perhaps Bhutan isn't the only country to be carbon negative after all - just the one that's got plenty of attention.