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Bhutan caught in a scrabble of climate change

Apr 14, 2010

The only country among 194 UN members that has declared itself ‘climate negative’, Bhutan soaks up more greenhouse gases than it emits. While other countries are still struggling to become carbon neutral but are far from the goal, Bhutan leads with its ambitious projects to reduce the use of fossil fuels.

Bonn, Germany: The Himalayan kingdom of Bhutan sees a struggle to keep up a rare role in fighting climate change in coming years-its forests currently absorb more carbon than its people emit from use of fossil fuels.

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Bhutan, which has low fossil fuel use because of poverty twinned with strong forest protection, plans to stay "carbon neutral" under a policy of "gross happiness to save our planet". But fossil fuel use is rising with the appearance of more cars on the roads and industrial development.

"The government has dared to take a very ambitious decision to declare 'carbon neutrality'," said Yeshey Penjor, leading Bhutan's delegation at UN climate talks from April 9-11 that spilled into early Monday to plan new UN meetings in 2010.

"Now we have to see if we can live up to the commitment," he said. "From the preliminary inventory (of greenhouse gases) we have completed it's already indicating a big challenge."

Run on Buddhist principles of respect for nature, Bhutan is the only country among 194 UN members to have formally told the United Nations this year that it is now "climate negative" -- soaking up more greenhouse gases more than it emits.

Penjor said he knew of no other countries that can make the claim. Analysts say that some other poor, forested nations in Africa, Asia or Latin America might be carbon negative but deforestation is a problem in many.

And some other countries -- including the Maldives, Costa Rica and Norway -- plan to become carbon neutral in coming years but are far from the goal. Bhutan is number 108 on a UN ranking of gross national product per capita, at $4,837 in 2009.

A push to end poverty in a country of fewer than 700,000 people in an area the size of Switzerland, will mean a rise in use of fossil fuels in cars and industry.

"We do not have much area for new forest plantations. We have already more than 72 % of our land under forests," Penjor said. Trees soak up carbon as the grow and release it when they burn or rot.

Coal, Oil

"We do not import much coal but we do import a lot of oil for the transport sector and that is rising at a very escalated rate," he said.

Bhutan's main plan to meet future energy demand is to exploit hydropower -- aiming to add 10,000 megawatts of capacity to an existing 1,500 MW in a nation where several mountain peaks are above 7,000 metres (22,970 ft).

That plan, which depends on foreign aid, would also enable exports to neighbouring India. Taking those green exports into account as helping to reduce emissions from burning fossil fuels, Bhutan would be able to achieve its carbon goals.

"In that sense we will always be carbon negative I think," said Karma Tshering, the other member of the Bhutan delegation.

A problem was that many Himalayan glaciers, which now help provide water in rivers tapped for hydropower year-round even in dry seasons, are shrinking. That could make it necessary to build dams to create big reservoirs to help regulate flows.

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