I met the Lonchen of the Dragon Kingdom last month in Brussels. Not a Game of Thrones character, but the Prime Minister of Bhutan, the Buddhist kingdom locked in the high Himalayas. Dressed in a striking knee-length robe, Tshering Tobgay was in the European Parliament to speak of the challenges facing his mountainous land.
Bhutan is a country the size of Switzerland which nestles between China and India. At its lowest point it is 160 metres above sea level. It soars to over 7,500 metres at its peak. The people of Bhutan - some 750,000 - began their transition to democracy only seven years ago. The same year that President Obama was elected. Tshering Tobgay is the first leader of the opposition to become prime minister, since before 2008, there was no opposition. The internet only arrived in the Kingdom in 1999, the same year the ban on TV was lifted.
A happy people
Bhutan is the country which initiated the concept of Gross National Happiness - the brainchild of the fourth Dragon King, Jigme Singye Wangchuck - a holistic approach to development which gives weight to the non-economic aspects of wellbeing. Although criticised by some for its subjectivity, in 2011 the UN General Assembly unanimously agreed to place "happiness" on the global development agenda. According to a global survey by US Business Week magazine Bhutan is the happiest country in Asia and the 8th happiest in the world. The UK ranked a respectable 21st.
For the prime minister of a happy people, Tobgay had much on his mind, most of it centred around the impact of climate change in the high Himalayas and the impending UN talks in Paris. In truth, there is little more than Bhutan itself can do to address climate issues. The country is already carbon neutral. Its vast forests cover 72% of the country (by constitutional mandate they must always cover at least 60%), absorbing six million tonnes of CO2 a year in a country that generates only 1.5 million tonnes. The Bhutanese do love trees. On the day the Prime Minister spoke in the European Parliament the Bhutanese were celebrating "Social Forest Day" (3 June) with a mass public tree planting, 50,000 trees in a single hour - a Guinness World Record.
As Prime Minister Tobgay warned, the impact of global warming is keenly experienced at altitude. In the past 20 years, temperatures above 4,000 metres have warmed 75% faster than at altitudes below 2,000m. A rise in temperature of 1oC at sea level can be equivalent of a 4oC rise in the high mountains. With a tenth of Bhutan covered by glaciers it is easy to see why the Prime Minister is concerned. The previous Bhutanese Prime Minister Jigme Thinley was stark in his warning, "Our glaciers are withdrawing very fast and we have reasons to worry that they may in fact disappear not in 2035 [as a 2008 UN report had predicted], but even earlier."
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