Keeping Bhutan carbon neutral

Climate change mitigation specialist Nawaraj Chhetri shares his experience in the Land of the Thunder Dragon

UN Development Programme
5 min readSep 11, 2018
Situated on the slopes of the Himalayas, Bhutan is known as the ‘Land of the Thunder Dragon’.

The Kingdom of Bhutan is carbon negative, sequestering more carbon dioxide than it emits. Despite recent economic growth and development causing its national emissions to rise, it has pledged to remain carbon neutral by ensuring the capacity of its carbon sinks through forest protection, as well as through setting out plans for its cities to pursue low carbon development pathways. We have been speaking with Nawaraj Chhetri, Portfolio Manager for Climate Change Mitigation and Energy at UNDP Bhutan, to hear more about the urban climate action taking place in the Kingdom.

What inspired you to work in this area?

I always get inspired when I see that my small contributions are making a huge difference in the lives of underprivileged people. In the past, I worked on mini and micro hydroelectrical and was responsible for energy generation. Then I was engaged in a rural electrification project, and I was responsible for providing energy access to rural communities residing in remote places in Bhutan. The project brought about immense benefits to communities as they got access to electricity for the first time. It brought smiles and happiness to their lives and improved their living standard.

UNDP portfolio manager Nawaraj Chhetri works with the Royal Government of Bhutan to maintain the country’s carbon neutrality.

This inspired me to work more permanently in these areas as there are lots of opportunities to make an impact, and I feel I can contribute to ensure that climate change issues are adequately managed. I would like to continue supporting Bhutan and communities to meet our carbon neutral target.

Tell us about a climate action initiative in a city you work in

There are a number of climate change initiatives that cities are implementing throughout Bhutan, but I would like to tell you about some of the major works that I was engaged with as a technical specialist:

The number of vehicles on the road has been increasing exponentially over the years in Bhutan, and due to the higher emissions caused by this, the Royal Government of Bhutan wanted to prioritize the transport sector.

The UNDP Country Office supported the Government to develop the Bhutan Sustainable Low-emission Urban Transport Systems project in Thimphu, the capital, with the objective to facilitate the initial stage of a low-carbon transition in Bhutan’s urban transport sector. Efforts were made to promote the uptake of low emission vehicles, particularly electric vehicles, since this is one of the priority interventions outlined in the Low Emission Development Strategy.

In Bhutan’s capital Thimphu, hundreds of fossil fuel taxis are being replaced with low-emissions electric vehicles.

I was the technical lead in designing the project document and conducted gender analysis and Social and Environmental Screening Procedure, financial and technical studies. The project is approved by the Global Environment Facility (GEF) and will be implemented within this year.

In addition to the transport initiatives, I worked on the formulation of a waste management project that is initially targeting 7 out of the 20 districts in Bhutan. Waste is identified as the major emerging issue threatening both Bhutan’s public health and pristine environment. The objective of the proposal is to assist the Government to reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions by promoting a sustainable public-private partnership (PPP) model to de-risk private sector investment in municipal waste in Bhutan.

Waste management is emerging as a major issue threatening the environment and public health in Bhutan.

Energy efficiency is getting more from our existing resources. It increases global resource productivity, supports economic growth, and reduces costs for all citizens. The promotion of energy efficiency was identified as one of the priority areas under our Nationally Determined Contribution to the Paris Agreement, which I contributed technical inputs to.

I worked with Thimphu municipality and worked on a pilot project to replace high energy consuming sodium vapour lamps with better and efficient LED street lights on Babesa Expressway. With this pilot project, I was able to convince and justify the higher upfront costs of LED lamps. Now the municipality is installing LED street lights in other parts of the city.

Bhutan is also prioritizing energy efficiency and conservation, such as these energy-saving cook stoves.

What do you think are the greatest risks that climate change poses to the cities and people of Bhutan, and what do you see as the greatest opportunities?

For me the greatest risk that climate change poses to Bhutan and its cities is the drying up of water resources. This would have implications for the availability of water for drinking as well as for the hydropower plants, which currently generate more than 99 percent of Bhutan’s energy. The other sector that is impacted is the agricultural sector. Yields have been decreasing, and communities are facing challenges to cope with climate change impacts such as erratic rainfall, landslides, floods and pests and diseases.

Diversifying the source of energy generation by promoting other renewable energy such as solar and wind is a great opportunity to reduce dependency on water flows and increase the security of our energy supply. Promoting low emission transport systems by improving public transport, regulating vehicle emission standards and promoting electric and hybrid vehicles, as well as encouraging energy efficiency in buildings are also low-hanging fruit regarding the low-carbon transition.

With a mandate in its constitution, Bhutan has made a commitment to maintain 60% forest cover.

What are Bhutan’s cities doing to help reduce GHG emissions?

In Thimphu, 300 fossil fuel taxis are being replaced with electric vehicles with financial support from the GEF and a PPP model is being piloted to improve waste management in Thimphu city by outsourcing waste collection and management. A national transport policy is being developed and the Government is working on improving public transport services with funding support from Green Climate Fund (GCF). Furthermore, the policy framework is being enhanced to address these issues. The energy efficiency and conservation policy is approved, and the National Environment Commission is working on climate change policy.

If you could offer one piece of advice to other cities eager to support the Paris Agreement, what would it be?

The Paris Agreement outlines an ambitious set of targets. It would not be possible to meet these targets if we don’t come together to provide and share technological know-how and financial support to countries willing to pursue low carbon development.