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No Happiness without the Trees: Bhutan’s Trailblazing Environmental Law

March 29, 2023

By Sangay Dorjee and Meghan Nalbo

One of the world’s few carbon-negative countries is asking, “What more can we do?”

Dean Sangay Dorjee of Bhutan’s Jigme Singye Wangchuck School of Law, and the law school’s president, Her Royal Highness Princess Sonam Dechan Wangchuck, performing the opening ceremony of the February 2023 Paro Forum. (Photo: The Asia Foundation)

The Kingdom of Bhutan has more than met its 2009 COP15 pledge to remain carbon neutral. While this landlocked Himalayan nation between India and China emits 2.2 million metric tons of carbon dioxide per year, the vast forests that cover nearly three-quarters of the country absorb more than four million tons.

Bhutan has embraced the preservation of this natural inheritance. Its constitution mandates that forest cover be maintained at no less than 60 percent. The nation of roughly 700,000 citizens harbors one of the 10 most biodiverse regions in the world, and its snow-covered peaks are the source of water for one-fifth of the world’s population.

But climate change is no respecter of national borders. Even as Bhutan reaches for middle-income status by the end of this year, its growing urban populations remain vulnerable to landslides and flooding from glacial lake outbursts, a particular danger of warming in Asia’s high mountainous regions. His Majesty King Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck, Bhutan’s constitutional monarch, has warned that conservation must remain an active commitment in the years ahead. Bhutan’s future, he says, will be “interwoven with regional and global developments … that are taking place at a very fast pace.” Though Bhutan does not contribute to climate change, it feels compelled to be part of the solution.

In February, Bhutan’s Jigme Singye Wangchuck School of Law welcomed nearly four dozen legal and environmental experts from around the world to the inaugural Paro Forum, entitled “Climate Justice for Happiness.” The Paro Forum, named for the school’s Paro District home, examined how South Asia’s youngest national law school, known as JSW Law, could draw on Bhutan’s unique resources and experience to help fight climate change and advance environmental law.

Her Royal Highness Princess Sonam Dechan Wangchuck of Bhutan with Paro Forum speakers and moderators. (Photo: The Asia Foundation)

The first and only law school in the Kingdom of Bhutan, JSW Law welcomed its first cohort in 2017, nine years after Bhutan became a constitutional monarchy. His Majesty the King established JSW Law to develop and train dedicated legal professionals who would help this newly democratic society to flourish. The unique curriculum of JSW Law reflects key aspirations of Bhutanese society: environmental protection, the rule of law, the preservation of culture and tradition, and the Bhutanese principle of Gross National Happiness.

Gross National Happiness (GNH) is a holistic concept that measures development not just by growing wealth and GDP, but also by a suite of noneconomic indicators such as psychological well-being, health and education, time spent in work and leisure, cultural diversity, good governance, community vitality, and ecological resilience. As measured by GNH, environmental health cannot be discarded for development, because it is intrinsic to development.

The Paro Forum brought together leaders and experts from Bhutan and around the world to study Bhutan’s experience and advance the international dialogue on climate change. The Forum also marked the inauguration of JSW Law’s long-envisioned Climate Change and Environmental Law Centre. The Centre seeks to embody the pillars of GNH as it prepares students and faculty to tackle emerging issues in climate law—from local disputes over climate measures, to jurisdictional debates over national climate policy, to international management of transboundary resources such as water.

Her Royal Highness Princess Sonam Dechan Wangchuck of Bhutan with Paro Forum attendees and guests. (Photo: The Asia Foundation)

With its track record of programs addressing climate change and its long experience supporting legal education in Asia, The Asia Foundation is proud to have been invited to support key initiatives of JSW Law’s governing body, headed by Her Royal Highness Princess Sonam Dechan Wangchuck, who began envisioning the development of the nation’s legal sector by command of the King shortly after the adoption of the 2008 constitution.

Their Majesties’ vision, widely shared throughout Bhutan, emphasizes the importance of multisectoral cooperation and collective effort in achieving common goals. JSW Law’s Climate Change and Environmental Law Centre, and the Paro Forum, will provide an interdisciplinary platform for communication and collaboration among national bodies and interdisciplinary climate experts from both within and outside Bhutan.

The changing climate is a multifaceted challenge to Gross National Happiness. “In the ‘Age of Adaptation,’” as Dr. Adil Najam, dean emeritus and professor of global studies at Boston University, told the Paro Forum, “and especially in developing countries, we need to be focusing on the real lives of real people—especially the poorest and most vulnerable. Let us begin by focusing on how climate impacts affect their lives and livelihoods, and work to reduce the pain of those impacts.”

JSW Law will produce a white paper from the Paro Forum highlighting the key areas where the Climate Change and Environmental Law Centre can be effective in Bhutan, regionally, and globally. The Centre and JSW Law have a special role to play as Bhutan and the world work to halt and adapt to climate change.

Sangay Dorjee is the founding dean of JSW Law. Meghan Nalbo leads The Asia Foundation’s country office in Nepal, which supports Foundation programming in Bhutan. She can be reached at [email protected]. The views and opinions expressed here are those of the authors, not those of The Asia Foundation.

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