How Bhutan could provide the blueprint for climate-smart forest economies

(Credit: Unsplash)

This article is brought to you thanks to the collaboration of The European Sting with the World Economic Forum.

Author: Robyn van den Heuvel, Program Lead, Climate Smart Forest Economy Program

  • Bhutan’s is the first carbon-negative country in the world.
  • Bhutan’s government is keen to ensure that the country’s urbanisation doesn’t lead to a huge increase in carbon emissions or come at the expense of its forests.
  • Initially, three climate smart breakthrough pilot projects will be built to serve as functional testbeds of sustainable timber construction solutions.

Sandwiched between Tibet and India in Southern Asia, the Kingdom of Bhutan is a rapidly developing country with a fast-growing population that is creating an increasing demand for urban housing. Bhutan’s land is 70% covered by forests and it is the first carbon-negative country in the world. So, as the King of Bhutan is intent on maintaining this accolade and forests are seen as part of the country’s sacred cultural heritage, Bhutan’s government is keen to ensure that the country’s urbanisation doesn’t lead to a huge increase in carbon emissions or come at the expense of its forests. To create housing, maintain its negative carbon status and sustainably manage its forests, Bhutan is embarking on creating a climate-smart forest economy.

What is a climate-smart forest economy?

At the root of a climate-smart forest economy is a climate-smart forest. A climate-smart forest is carefully managed to optimise the climate benefits of the forest and everything it produces. It does this by focusing on maximising the amount of carbon trees can absorb and store as woody biomass. It serves as a mantra for forest management to minimise greenhouse gas emissions and to help contribute to mitigating climate change. It adapts forest management to build resilient forest ecosystems that encourage wildlife and limit forest fires. And, it sustainably manages production of all the products that the forest can provide, from wood to fruit to rubber.

Not only is the wood produced from a climate-smart forest sustainable – unlike fossil fuel-intensive materials, such as steel and concrete, that emit vast amounts of carbon in their manufacture – wood keeps storing that carbon, even when it is made into long-lasting wood products, such as the frame of a building or a door. Carefully orchestrated, a climate-smart forest economy can create an infrastructure and livelihoods that work in tandem with the world’s working forests to sink and store carbon.

Creating a circular regenerative construction economy in Bhutan

His Majesty King Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck and the democratically elected government of Bhutan are exploring the potential of creating a circular regenerative construction economy in Bhutan, fed by an expanding climate-smart forest economy.

To accomplish this, Bhutan is working with Bauhaus Earth, which is on a mission to see that buildings, cities and landscapes proactively contribute to climate restoration; global sustainable development consultancy, Arup and the Climate Smart Forest Economy Program (CSFEP), which aims to realize the full climate potential of forests and forest products.

“We’re working with everyone involved along the supply chain in Bhutan,” explains Alan Organschi, director of Innovation Labs at Bauhaus Earth and principal and partner at Gray Organschi Architecture. “With our Bhutanese leaders, we will work with the people living in the forest and draw on their local knowledge to leave the strongest trees with the best DNA and harvest the smaller diameter trees for turning into engineered wood for construction. We will then be working with partners to ensure that the forest naturally regenerates.

“We are also working with Bhutanese educators, workforce training programs and civil society organizations to re-skill and share knowledge among professionals, policy-makers, builders and the general public. Through these efforts, we hope that Bhutanese society can better understand and thus support the values of a regenerative construction economy. Already rightfully proud of their cherished forests, we want to work together to be equally proud of the products and buildings that we can sustainably draw from them. Where once the city and the forest were antagonistic, we are working on creating a systemic and synergistic relationship between the two landscapes.”


What’s the World Economic Forum doing about deforestation?

Halting deforestation is essential to avoiding the worst effects of global climate change.

The destruction of forests creates almost as much greenhouse gas emissions as global road travel, and yet it continues at an alarming rate.

In 2012, we brought together more than 150 partners working in Latin America, West Africa, Central Africa and South-East Asia – to establish the Tropical Forest Alliance 2020: a global public-private partnership to facilitate investment in systemic change.

The Alliance, made up of businesses, governments, civil society, indigenous people, communities and international organizations, helps producers, traders and buyers of commodities often blamed for causing deforestation to achieve deforestation-free supply chains.

The Commodities and Forests Agenda 2020, summarizes the areas in which the most urgent action is needed to eliminate deforestation from global agricultural supply chains.

The Tropical Forest Alliance 2020is gaining ground on tackling deforestation linked to the production of four commodities: palm oil, beef, soy, and pulp and paper.

Get in touch to join our mission to halt to deforestation.

The climate-smart forest economy challenge

Creating and maintaining a climate-smart forest economy is taxing whatever the location. When demand outstrips supply and the forest continues meeting this demand, degradation and. ultimately, deforestation can occur. The forest loses its ability to act as a climate solution and instead becomes an emitter

Maintaining a balance so that the demand for timber doesn’t outstrip what the forest can supply will be a constant challenge for Bhutan. But the country is committed to focusing on what wood its forests can sustainably provide for countrywide construction, rather than asking them to meet an insatiable demand for wood. There is no plan to create an export industry, this is about creating a self-sufficient, sustainable sovereign resource for Bhutan.

Bhutan’s pilot sustainable timber construction projects

Initially, three climate-smart breakthrough pilot projects will be built across Bhutan to serve as functional testbeds of sustainable timber construction solutions. “One of our pilot projects is for the main commercial street in Bhutan’s capital, Thimphu,” says Organschi. “This will be a mixed-use commercial building up to six storeys high that demonstrates the capacity to develop an alternative to the high-emission producing, reinforced concrete designs that are typically used to supply the urban demand for buildings in Bhutan. We hope this will demonstrate the capacity of Bhutanese forests to sustainably, or even regeneratively, supply a building boom in Bhutan’s cities.”

The second project is the retrofit and environmental upgrade of a former hotel. This will show that it’s just as important and possible to use timber construction to improve existing buildings, instead of tearing them down to build new ones. And the third scheme is an affordable housing project. Beyond that, a finite list of demonstration projects, including schools, bridges and industrial buildings, will help to build social license for the regenerative transformation of Bhutan’s construction sector.

The design, build and occupy time frame for these projects is 30 months. Simultaneously, efforts are ongoing to build capacity in Bhutan’s timber supply chain from forests to factories for off-site manufacturing and prefabrication methods. The next stage of pilot projects will include schools, rural workforce housing and pedestrian infrastructure, such as bridges, bus shelters and benches.

Can other countries follow Bhutan’s lead?

Many other regional initiatives are already developing climate-smart forest programs designed to create climate-smart forest economies. It is hoped that this national approach will encourage other countries facing similar challenges to follow suit. Bauhaus Earth is already reporting interest from Bhutan’s neighbouring countries in the Himalayan region.

And, as part of its global commitment to unlocking the full climate potential of Earth’s forests and forest products, the CSFEP is running several other Breakthrough Initiatives around the world. In a very different climate and eco-system to Bhutan’s, Scotland’s largest city, Glasgow, is running a Climate-Smart Forest Program to reshape and restructure operations in the region’s forestry, built environment, construction and manufacturing sectors – all working synergistically to ensure an optimal balance of carbon in each area.

As part of this, 18 million trees will be planted in the region over the next decade, increasing woodland cover from 17% to 20%. Assuming a 50:50 ratio broadleaved to conifer, 988,682 tCO2 will be sequestered and stored by 2045 as a result of this woodland expansion. Plus, more than 32,000 m3 of timber will be available to market once the trees reach harvestable age, potentially storing 1,362,000 tCO2 in the construction value chain.

To learn more about the Climate-Smart Forest initiative in Bhutan, read the summary report

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