Why Bhutan Is All Alone in the Carbon-Neutral Nation Club

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Photographer: Arun Sankar/AFP via Getty Images

There’s a tiny nation nestled in the Himalaya mountains with so many trees -- and so little pollution -- that it actually gobbles up more carbon dioxide from the atmosphere than it produces. Alas for the fight against global climate change, most of the world’s countries aren’t like Bhutan. Instead, they spew out CO2 and other greenhouse gases faster than they can be contained. Countries are now pledging to fight climate change by slashing their net output of carbon dioxide to zero -- becoming what’s known as “carbon-neutral.”

Photo taken on October 2, 2010 shows a m

A monastery in the Haa valley, Bhutan.

Photographer: Ed Jones/AFP via Getty Images

1. What’s required to be ‘carbon-neutral’?

It means cutting emissions as much as is possible and balancing what can’t be eliminated with compensatory actions to achieve a zero carbon “footprint.” To reduce the CO2 released into the air, countries can spur the use of cleaner autos, transition their economies away from carbon-intensive heavy manufacturing and switch to greener sources of electricity like wind and solar. One of the most promising ways to reduce emissions, still unproven at an industrial scale, is to trap CO2 from polluters before it enters the atmosphere and bottle it up in giant underground cavities -- a technology known as carbon capture and storage.

2. What are compensatory actions?

It’s unrealistic to entirely eliminate CO2 output, so polluters can balance out emissions by buying carbon credits. These certificates, which can be traded on exchanges, allow the owners to emit a specified amount of greenhouse gas that’s compensated for by carbon-reduction efforts elsewhere. The credits can be sold by places with lower overall emissions or generated through projects such as reforestation. For a country to be carbon-neutral, its output cuts and credits must take net CO2 production to zero.

3. Who’s trying to be carbon-neutral?

Dozens of countries have announced commitments. Spain plans to float 47 billion euros ($53 billion) worth of “green bonds” to pay for low-carbon infrastructure. Costa Rica says it will “decarbonize” itself by 2050 with a package of policies focused on sectors including energy and transport. The Carbon Neutrality Coalition, a group of 19 countries formed in 2017 that includes Brazil, Canada and the U.K., has pledged to meet carbon-reduction targets set out in the landmark 2015 Paris Agreement on climate change. (U.S. President Trump has announced plans to withdraw from the Paris accord.) Meanwhile, through the so-called C40 initiative, 83 cities around the world have committed to implementing their own climate action plans.

4. What’s driving this fight?

Scientists blame the vast build-up in atmospheric CO2 and other greenhouse gases since the Industrial Revolution for speeding up global warming. They warn that without radical measures to reduce emissions, the fight against climate change will become unwinnable. Despite international efforts to limit carbon output, CO2 pollution is still rising and won’t peak for several more years, according to the International Energy Association. The amount of climate-damaging CO2 in the atmosphere is likely to reach another record in 2019, driven by growing use of fossil fuels and a decline in planetary forest cover, predicts Britain’s meteorological service, the Met Office.

5. How will countries reach their goals?

To get anywhere close to net zero by 2050 -- a date embraced by the European Union -- the world must invest $2.4 trillion in clean energy every year through 2035 (up from $1.8 trillion spent in 2017 on all forms of energy systems) today and stop burning coal almost entirely by the middle of the century, according to the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change ( IPCC). Government policies and local initiatives are needed to trigger changes in transport, infrastructure, land use, and how cities are built. Further improvement and development of hitherto uneconomical technologies like carbon capture (also called sequestration) are essential to hit global targets. In short, there’s a lot of work to do.

6. Is anyone enforcing the rules?

Not really. There is some oversight built into in the Paris Agreement that holds countries accountable if their climate plans aren’t ambitious enough, but nothing is enforceable by law at a global level. Some countries and U.S. states -- like Sweden, Hawaii, and California -- have enshrined their commitments into legislation, making pledges harder to break. (When pledges aren’t enforceable, they’re easy to dodge when it becomes politically expedient.) So far, scientists, protesters, NGOs and investors have been the main source of pressure on countries to change and make sure their promises are kept.

7. Can countries evade responsibility?

Any single country can make its own carbon footprint appear smaller by winding down polluting industries on its own soil and buying the products they make from elsewhere. That’s why multinational cooperation is needed to achieve real reductions in output. Likewise, carbon offset programs can be subject to manipulation: If industries buy carbon credits from another country, there’s no mechanism to guarantee they’re legitimate. Lawmakers can also impose commitments years into the future in the knowledge they’ll be out of office before the deadlines hit. Skeptics call insincere environmental promises rolled out for the sake of good publicity “greenwashing.”

The Reference Shelf

  • A Bloomberg Law story on Europe’s move to carbon neutrality
  • A QuickTake about how the climate change debate has shifted
  • A QuickTake on how carbon capture works
  • An article looking at Spain’s recent carbon neutral push