The small Himalayan country of Bhutan, mainly known for measuring national happiness instead of GDP, is the only carbon-negative country on the planet. Believe it or not, it has only had one single death from COVID-19. Is that a coincidence?

Madeline Drexler’s new article in the Atlantic, “The Unlikeliest Pandemic Success Story,” dives into the reasons that Bhutan has managed to fare so well against the novel coronavirus while rich countries and middle-income have struggled to keep it in check. The tiny developing country, landlocked between India and Tibet, wasn’t exactly set up for success. It began 2020 with exactly one PCR machine to test for the virus, according to Drexler’s reporting, and one doctor with advanced training in critical care.

For anyone who’s thought a lot about the collective action problem posed by climate change, Bhutan’s recipe for success may sound familiar. Responding to a crisis isn’t just about the great technology you have, but how fast you act, how you support your neighbors, and how willing you are to sacrifice for the common good.

It helps explain why Bhutan is the world’s only “carbon-negative” country. That means it takes more carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere than it emits, which, if more countries joined in, could actually reverse global warming. Bhutan’s rich natural features make that possible. Its constitution mandates that 60 percent of its total land is covered in forests. An extensive system of rivers provides abundant hydroelectricity, much of which Bhutan exports to India. At the international Paris climate summit in 2015, Bhutan was said to have the most ambitious pledge in the world — it was already absorbing three times more carbon dioxide than it emitted.

Granted, with a population of 760,000 and an average income of $3,400 per person, Bhutan’s example can only go so far. Still, its response to the dual crises of coronavirus and climate change is inspiring.

  • At the first hint of alarm, Bhutan acted quickly and firmly. 
  • Its leadership was competent — and trusted. 
  • The government provided resources so people could do the right thing. 
  • Altruism and sacrifice are baked in.

Read the full article about how Bhutan is handling the pandemic and climate change by Kate Yoder at Grist.