Q&A: A crucial year for our planet, says Prime Minister of Bhutan

Article, 24 November 2015

In the third of our interviews with representatives from the Least Developed Country Group, the Prime Minister of Bhutan, Tshering Tobgay, shares his hopes and priorities for COP21 in Paris.

Between 30 November and 11 December, the 21st session of the Conference of Parties to the United Nation Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) will take place in Paris to seek a legally-binding agreement on climate change.

Bhutan Prime Minister Tshering Tobgay (Photo: Tshering Palden)The Prime Minister of Bhutan, Tshering Tobgay (TT), shares what the country is looking for at COP21 and the priorities that the country has set itself to reduce the impacts of climate change. 

This is an excerpt from the Prime Minister's interview with Kuensel reporter Tshering Palden (TP).

TP: What are Bhutan's expectations from COP21 in Paris this December?

TT: 2015 is a crucial year for our planet. For the first time, all the countries have come together and owned up to the realities of climate change. So in this context, the COP21 or the Paris conference is going to be a defining moment for our planet. It is important that we set high goals and ambitious targets and that they are legally binding. 

For Bhutan we have at least four concrete outcomes that we would like to see.

We would like to see a legally-binding agreement that will limit global warming to a maximum of two degrees, and ideally we should limit global warming to 1.5 degrees. 

We would like to see all countries or parties make ambitious and legally-binding commitments to reduce greenhouse gases. 

We would like to see a support mechanism within that agreement to support the least developed and vulnerable countries meet their commitments.  

We need to have a review mechanism that is transparent to ensure that countries stay true to their commitments and also that countries’ commitments can be upgraded and enhanced over time. 

TP: As Bhutan is a least developed country that is vulnerable to climate change impacts, do you think the UN conference should have special provisions for the LDCs? 

TT:  Climate change or global warming is a global problem that requires a global solution. It should not be between the rich and poor. All of us must come together and play our bit to fight climate change and limit global warming. 

TP: What examples are there of loss and damage in Bhutan as a consequence of climate change?

TT: Bhutan is very vulnerable to climate change because of two unique circumstances. We are a landlocked and mountainous country. Being landlocked means that we have to bear the consequences of the greenhouse gases emitted by all our neighbours. This makes Bhutan very vulnerable. 

We are a fragile mountain ecosystem. As a mountainous ecosystem, we have to contend with the risk of Glacial Lake Outburst Flood (GLOF) that comes with receding glaciers, and we have to deal with water security issues, flash floods and landslides, windstorms and forest fires. 

We are especially vulnerable because more than 60 per cent of our people live off agriculture and because our main industry is hydropower, which really depends on the availability of sustainable water. 

A glacial lake near the Jomolhari mountain in Bhutan. Receding glaciers threaten Bhutan's ecosystem with flash floods, landslides and water security problems (Photo: PNUD, Creative Commons via Flickr)

TP: We submitted the Intended Nationally Determined Contributions (INDCs), which also outline Bhutan's mitigation measures and broad adaptation priorities. What are the challenges of implementing them?

TT: Our INDCs are both clear and ambitious. Our overall INDC is that we would be carbon neutral for times to come. To achieve that we are committed to maintain at least 60 per cent of land under forest cover and to ensure that our economy is clean, green and renewable. 

Our target of keeping Bhutan carbon neutral in fact has already been realised. We are carbon negative. Our forests sequester 6.4 million tonnes of carbon dioxide every year while we emit only about 2.2 million tonnes of carbon dioxide. So we are a net sink of about 4.1 million tonnes of carbon dioxide annually. 

To ensure that we remain carbon neutral we need to have a healthy forest cover. Our constitution requires that by law we must maintain at least 60 per cent of land under forest cover. Today, it is more than 70.5 per cent and it is growing. 

Fifty-two per cent of our land cover is protected as parks and wildlife sanctuaries. So we are committed to not just maintaining as much of our country under forest cover. 

As far as our economy is concerned we are committed to ensuring that it continues to be clean, green and renewable. Our agriculture is still largely natural and we are committed to ensuring that we keep it sustainable and work towards making it totally organic.  

As far as transport is concerned most of our greenhouse gases are emitted in this sector and so we are committed to improving the sustainability of transport by using low carbon technology. 

A yak in Bhutan, where the constitution requires maintaining at least 60 per cent of land under forest cover (Photo: PNUD, Creative Commons via Flickr)

In the area of hydropower Bhutan has been blessed with vast potential. It is our responsibility to tap that potential so that we in Bhutan use clean and renewable energy. But more than that we are able to export clean energy to our neighbours in so doing we will be offsetting millions of tonnes of carbon dioxide which they would otherwise have used. 

In fact we may be the only carbon neutral country in the world today and perhaps the only carbon negative country. While we have established our credential in protecting our forests for instance and keeping our economy green, these are measures that are very expensive. For a poor country like Bhutan, it goes without saying that we need the help and assistance of the larger and richer countries to continue meeting our goals. 

TP: INDCs so far submitted suggest that the world is on track for 2.7 degrees of global warming while the convention sets a goal of two degrees. What can LDCs do to raise the ambition of emitting countries? 

TT: Current INDCs suggest that global temperatures are going to increase by 2.7 degrees whereas the convention says that we should limit it to two degrees. So obviously this is cause for concern. We must get global warming down to a maximum of two degrees.

As far Bhutan is concerned, and as far as other LDCs and vulnerable countries are concerned, we must bring it down even further to 1.5 degrees that is because we cannot afford the adaptation measures that will be required with a two-degree increase in global temperature.

The rich world can afford that but vulnerable and poorer countries cannot afford it and this is why for poor, vulnerable and landlocked, mountainous countries like Bhutan it is critical that we aim to achieve a maximum global increase temperature of not two degrees but 1.5 degrees.

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