Oct 22, 2016

Gross National Happiness: Bhutan's unique measurement

Bhutan's prime minister, Tshering Tobgay, talks about tackling climate change, economic development and how to measure happiness.


We turn now to the tiny nation of Bhutan. Wedged in the Himalayas between China and India, the country has been in the international spotlight mainly for its strong commitment to preserving its culture - severely limiting tourism, for one thing - and also for its unique approach to calculating economic growth by taking the pulse of its people's gross national happiness. But over the last decade, the country has undergone dramatic changes, including the transformation from an absolute monarchy to a parliamentary democracy. And all this has happened while the nation, one of the world's smallest, has undertaken a bold environmental agenda. The nation is among one of just a handful of so-called carbon negative countries in the world, meaning it soaks up more carbon than it produces thanks to vast forests. Amidst all this, it's also developing a new economic engine in the form of hydropower while expanding economic and political ties to neighboring India and China. Prime Minister Tshering Tobgay is in Vancouver to speak at a TED conference, and so we thought this was a good time to catch up with the prime minister and to find out about all the changes going on in Bhutan. Prime minister, thank you so much for speaking with us.

TSHERING TOBGAY: Thank you, Michel. It's an honor.

MARTIN: For many years, much of what the world has known about Bhutan, as I mentioned, had to do with the idea of gross national happiness. I know you've been in office since 2013. Are you still using this measure?

TOBGAY: Oh yes, we are. Gross national happiness was conceived of by our kings. It was our fourth king in the early 1970s who said that for Bhutan, gross national happiness is more important than gross national product. We need to strengthen our economy, but equally important are other aspects of human development, which include social development, environment sustainability, culture. And this whole idea of balancing material growth - which is important on the one hand - with social development, this is what the sense of gross national happiness is all about.

MARTIN: And it's the subject of your TED talk is what I wanted to speak about now. Bhutan is one of the most environmentally friendly countries in the world. But you also have made it a priority to expand the country's economic activity. What would you say is your kind of overriding philosophy when it comes to that?

TOBGAY: Well, we're already carbon negative. Our entire country, we generate 2.2 million tons of carbon dioxide a year. However, our forests sequester more than 6 million tons. So the idea is to keep that track record - in fact, to add to it, given that climate change is a reality and climate change is already affecting our country. What we're trying to do is raise money to invest in our protected areas. More than half our country is protected as national parks and nature reserves. And we are already investing money in the parks, but we know that we need to be investing significantly more. We hope that we will be able to raise enough money for this transition fund that we are working on to help guarantee that our parks will receive full funding forever.

MARTIN: Can I talk to you a bit more, thought, about hydropower? I know that a lot of people look to hydropower as a clean energy source.

TOBGAY: ...Yes...

MARTIN: ...But there are also concerns there, that damming rivers can destroy ecosystems, for example...

TOBGAY: ...Yes.

MARTIN: So I wanted to ask - how do you reconcile the potential impact of these kinds of projects with your other objectives?

TOBGAY: Well, hydropower - we have huge potential in Bhutan. All our hydropower so far is run off the river. They're not reservoir-type dams. And that is, environmentally, as friendly as this technology gets. It will impact the environment, there's no doubt. But that impact is minimum. On the other hand, that is more than offset by the advantages of hydropower. And that is offsetting carbon usage in Bhutan but more importantly, giving our neighbors an opportunity to use green energy and thereby offset millions of tons of carbon dioxide.

MARTIN: But clearly, the situation with the glaciers has to be a concern of yours globally, because doesn't the water come from the melting of the glaciers?


MARTIN: That has to be a concern.

TOBGAY: It is a concern. And that is a concern for the sustainability of hydro, but also the sustainability of our farming system and the sustainability of our entire country. We have 2,600 glacial lakes. If we have more glaciers melt, eventually they'll breach the dams, and that has and will cause havoc in the country. So that is very dangerous. But receding glaciers also affect our water systems, and our river systems are very important to the sustainability of our agriculture, and also to the sustainability of our hydropower projects.

MARTIN: Before we let you go, I just wonder - is it frustrating to you that your country, which is small, is working its way out of poverty, has taken such a strong environmental stance, that countries that are wealthier and larger and presumably have as much know-how as money can buy have not yet taken such steps?

TOBGAY: I think it's all a matter of timing. The bigger countries, the more powerful countries will get their act together, and they will ensure that they do their bit. In the meantime, it is a pleasure and an honor for us in Bhutan to do our part. And it's all the more reason for Bhutan to do more, to succeed even more because we need to inspire ourselves and inspire the world.

MARTIN: Tshering Tobgay is the prime minister of Bhutan. He is in Vancouver to speak at a TED conference, and he was kind enough to take time out of his schedule to share some thoughts with us. Prime minister, thank you so much for speaking with us. I hope we'll speak again.

TOBGAY: Thank you.

- Michel Martin