Bhutan’s Diplomatic Maneuver – The Necessity of Biden’s American ‘Example’

Prime Minister Lotay Tshering on April 22nd, 2021 (via livestream)

On April 22nd, President Biden held a world summit with 40 leaders on climate change. Many nations were represented, including top U.S. allies and competitors alike. Vladimir Putin pledged to support climate change with economic incentives for green foreign companies, while Biden himself committed to cutting U.S. emissions in half by the end of the decade.

However, one small, isolationist country stood out amidst the many commitments of larger nations. Bhutan, whose King Jigme Khesar was represented by Prime Minister Lotay Tshering, is a small Himalayan nation with negative emissions.

Known as a ‘carbon sink,’ Bhutan runs primarily on hydroelectric power, with no natural gas reserves. Bhutan’s forests absorb enough CO₂ to make up for its limited coal production, as well as absorbing the CO₂ of nearby nations.

However, for an ‘exemplar’ nation, Tshering took a far more pointed tone than would expect. While speaking of his nation’s success in the energy sector, he carefully criticized the wider world’s so far ineffectual approach to climate change. Despite Bhutan’s energy measures, it remains one of the most affected nations by climate change due to its ecological fragility. Such remarks were seemingly made in a subtle prod to President Xi Jinping, as Bhutan enjoys a close relationship with India due to King Khesar’s diplomatic efforts.

Prime Minister Tshering raised a question that larger nations had avoided; how can smaller countries who may be exemplar nations hold regional powers accountable? How can a nation such as Bhutan protect itself from environmental harm by nearby emissions from regional powers?

“Even with our efforts, we remain highly vulnerable to the impacts of climate change. We face increasing threats from extreme climate events such as flash floods, glacial lake outbursts, windstorms, forest fires and landslides. I can not understand this irony of contributing a lot to environment preservation, yet, having to suffer so much. We urge all countries, particularly the major emitters to set more ambitious targets well ahead of the UN COP26.”

Prime Minister Lotay Tshering of Bhutan

By taking this stance, Tshering has also subtly reminded Biden of his campaign promise for foreign diplomacy: leading by the power of America’s example. Though admirable, Bhutan’s extraordinary commitment to climate change does little to relieve the heavy burden large nations place upon the world. By holding large nations accountable, Bhutan has deftly avoided confrontation while encouraging larger governments to fulfill their commitments. During the conference, President Jair Bolsonaro of Brazil, who spoke directly before Tshering, affirmed his commitment to pro-climate change policy, parroting that his administration recognized and took measures against climate change. Such a claim is baseless, and Prime Minister Tshering’s remark sought to call out such posturing by global leaders.

It is up to the United States, Russia, the EU, and China to set ambitious targets to combat climate change. With a quarter of the 21st century around the corner, world powers must take substantial action to reverse the climate crisis. Economies damaged by the pandemic must be rebuilt in an ecologically sustainable manner. Through all this, Bhutan’s diplomatic stance is commendable; resilient in doing its part and pursuing a greener economy while being unafraid to challenge larger nations on their stagnant policies.


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