We always knew that older people were valuable – but can they help combat climate change?

By Judith Davey

We are often having to defend the value of older people against accusations that they are a “burden” on society – costing too much for pensions and health care and so on. So I was intrigued and potentially delighted to see the headline “Our ageing populations could help slow greenhouse emissions”[1].

This was in the June 9th edition of “The Conversation” an Australian-based daily compilation of news stories, which I subscribe to.  Its slogan is “academic rigour, journalistic flair” and it contains items on politics, economics, health, arts and culture, environment and social issues. Every day I find several articles of interest.

So what about the question I started off with? Is there an up-side of ageing for the environment?

The answers may lie in the different lifestyle and consumption patterns of older people. They travel less by private transport.  They are less likely to have driving licenses and spend more time at home.  This will result in reduced emissions of carbon dioxide, the most important greenhouse gas. Older people eat less. In the United States average food energy intake increased markedly between the early 1970s and the late 1990s for all age groups, except for people aged 60 plus.

According to the article, there are also indirect effects. As population ages, workforce participation rates fall. This means fewer people to produce goods and services and therefore a slowdown in economic growth. This also will reduce emissions – less business travel, less energy use in offices and factories.

The authors applied economic analysis to data from 25 OECD countries, looking at per capita gross domestic product (GDP), the proportion of the population aged 65 and above, and the countries’ carbon dioxide emissions. They came to the conclusion that a 1% increase in the population share of the 65 plus age group reduces per capita CO2 emissions by an estimated 1.55% in the long run.

I can almost hear the chorus of “buts”. We do not want to celebrate keeping older people at home if this increases social isolation. Our politicians appear to consider economic growth as be-all and end-all. Surely many countries are encouraging older people to stay in paid work longer and this is a very strong trend in New Zealand, as I have pointed out. What about other pollutants as well as CO2 ? Developed countries cannot be let off the hook by relying on these (possibly uncertain) effects of population ageing. They still need to take appropriate and effective measures to reduce their own emissions of greenhouse gases.

Climate change from man-made activity is a global problem. Any slight remission in developed countries, which have higher rates of ageing, could easily be overtaken by growing fuel use of developing nations in the near to medium term. Looking out further, population ageing is an emerging trend in almost all countries of the world. So where does this leave us?


  1. The author of the article is Kamrul Hassan, Lecturer in Finance at Murdoch University, Australia. His paper was published in the Journal of Economic Studies, 2015.


About Age Concern New Zealand 'on research'

At the heart of everything Age Concern does is a passion to see older people experience well-being, respect, dignity, and to be included and valued. We support, inform and advise older people on issues such as access to health care, transport, housing, financial entitlements, and social opportunities. We also work to combat real problems in our society, like elder abuse and neglect, chronic loneliness and social isolation. We provide specialist services with trained and qualified professionals able to give expert advice and assistance. Age Concern is a charity and relies on the support of volunteers and public donations to do much of the work we do. To help us help older people, please consider making a donation of your time or money. To see how, visit www.ageconcern.org.nz
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