Megan Hall: Welcome to Possibly, where we take on huge problems like the future of our planet and break them down into small questions with unexpected answers. I’m Megan Hall. 

These days, it’s popular for countries to make pledges about when they’ll be carbon neutral. But there’s one country that’s already there. Actually, it’s carbon negative!  

Here to explain are Ashley Junger and Fatima Husain from our Possibly Team. Welcome, Ashley and Fatima! 

Ashley Junger: Hi, Megan! 

Fatima Husain: Hello!

Megan Hall: So first things first, what does it mean to be carbon neutral or carbon negative?

Ashley Junger: Carbon neutral essentially means the amount of greenhouse gases you emit in the air is balanced by the amount of greenhouse gases you pull out of the air. 

Megan Hall: Can you give me an example?

Fatima Husain: Let’s say you burn gasoline in your car, but you plant a grove of trees that suck up the exact same amount of carbon dioxide that your car emits. As long as those trees keep on growing, your car is “carbon neutral.” 

Ashley Junger: And carbon negative, means that you absorb or reduce more carbon dioxide than you make. 

Megan Hall: So, what’s this incredible place that is ALREADY carbon negative?

Fatima Husain: It’s a small country in the Himalayas called Bhutan.

Megan Hall: What’s their secret?

Ashley Junger: Well it all started in 1972, when the 4th King of Bhutan coined the term “Gross Domestic Happiness.”

Megan Hall: What does that mean?

Fatima Husain: To find out we talked to Dr. Dorji Yangka, who is originally from Bhutan and did his PhD research on Bhutan’s carbon negative status.

Dorji Yangka: Gross national happiness rejects the sole idea that economic growth is the only thing that humans want. 

Ashley Junger: So instead of depleting their natural resources to make money, Bhutan made protecting those things, like their old-growth forests, a pillar of their economy.

Fatima Husain: In 1995, Bhutan’s National Assembly decided that 60% of their country must remain forested, and in 1999 the country banned logging exports.

Ashley Junger: And trees absorb A LOT of carbon dioxide.

Megan Hall: So, when Bhutan decided to protect its forests, it also sort of unintentionally created an easy way to soak up its emissions?

Fatima Husain: Exactly. Their trees are packing away over twice as much carbon as the country produces.

Megan Hall: Is that what the US needs to become carbon neutral? Just lots and lots of trees? 

Fatima Husain: Not necessarily. Dorji says Bhutan has low carbon emissions to begin with

Dorji Yangka:Our population is very low and our GDP is very low and all our electricity is hydropower. We really don’t have to worry about those kinds of challenging emission reductions.

Ashley Junger: Also, let’s put this into perspective. Bhutan is about the size of Maryland and has less than a 6th of the population. 

Fatima Husain: Each person in Bhutan is responsible for only 3 metric tons of carbon per year, while each person in Maryland is on average responsible for more than three times as much.

Megan Hall: It sounds like the US is unlikely to successfully copy Bhutan’s approach,

Ashley Junger: Right, Other small, less developed countries are following Bhutan’s footsteps already, but the vast majority of countries won’t be able to offset their emissions in the same way.

Fatima Husain: And, as the country grows and becomes more urbanized, Bhutan will actually struggle to maintain their carbon negative status as well.

Megan Hall: Why? Are they planning to cut down their trees? 

Ashley Junger: No, but they are modernizing. As more people in Bhutan start to drive cars and get access to the kind of stuff we have in the US, they’ll create more emissions. 

Fatima Husain: At some point, those emissions will outweigh the emissions getting sucked up by the trees. 

Ashley Junger: The bottom line? Things like forests just aren’t enough to slow down climate change. To build a carbon neutral world, we need to shift to energy sources that don’t create emissions in the first place. 

Megan Hall: Great! Thanks, Ashley and Fatima!

That’s it for today. For more information, or to ask a question about the way your choices affect our planet, go to the public’s radio dot org slash possibly. Or subscribe to us wherever you get your podcasts. 

Possibly is a co-production of the Institute at Brown for Environment and Society, Brown’s Climate Solutions Initiative, and the Public’s Radio.

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