Sustainability Climate Change

People over 60 account for a third of greenhouse gas emissions

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Story at a glance

  • Survey data in 2005, 2010 and 2015, covering 27 European Union countries, the U.S. and four other nations shows that baby boomers leave the largest carbon footprint.
  • The study suggests that the over-60 age group were behind a growing share of greenhouse gas emissions in all 32 countries surveyed.
  • But, according to researchers, emissions of the elderly have a more local impact, compared to consumption habits among younger generations that lead to greater emissions in other countries.

People over the age of 60 account for close to a third of greenhouse gas emissions, new research in the U.S. and 31 other countries shows.  

Survey data in 2005, 2010 and 2015, covering 27 European Union countries, the U.S. and four other nations shows that baby boomers leave the largest carbon footprint.  

“Older people used to be thrifty. The generation that experienced World War II was careful about how they used resources. The ‘new elderly’ are different,” Edgar Hertwich, a professor at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology’s (NTNU) Industrial Ecology Program, said in a news release.  

“The post-war ‘baby boomer’ generation are the new elderly. They have different consumption patterns than the ‘quiet generation’ that was born in the period 1928-1945. Today’s seniors spend more money on houses, energy consumption and food,” Hertwich added.  

The study suggests that the over-60 age group were behind a growing share of greenhouse gas emissions in all countries surveyed. Heran Zheng, a postdoctoral fellow at NTNU, believes lawmakers can take away an important message from this research: the new seniors are making it tough to slash emissions.  

“The consumption habits of seniors are more rigid. For example, it would be an advantage if more people moved to smaller homes once the kids moved out,” he said. “Hopefully more senior-friendly housing communities, transport systems and infrastructure can be built.” 

But, according to researchers, emissions of the elderly have a more local impact, compared to consumption habits among younger generations that lead to greater emissions in other countries.  


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Researchers also noted that the global ageing wave will exacerbate the issue, as people born between 1950 and 1960 add to the growing elderly population, which is expected to double between 2019 and 2050.  

“Income shrinks in retirement, but seniors in developed countries have accumulated value, primarily in housing. A lot of them have seen a large increase in the value of their property. The elderly are able to maintain their high consumption through their wealth,” Zheng said.  

“This happens especially in carbon-intensive areas like energy,” he continued. “An increasing proportion of this age group live alone. This isn’t the case in all countries, but it reflects the overall picture.”  

Yet researchers said all age groups surveyed have reduced their carbon footprints overall, with people under 30 leading the way. This group cut their emissions by 3.7 tons over the survey period. Meanwhile, people 60 and older reduced their emission by 1.7 tons at the same time.  

The research was published March 9 in the journal Nature Climate Change.  


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