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Aging Society Creates Challenge for Cutting Carbon Emissions, Study Including UMD Researcher Finds

Older Adults Have Outsize Environmental Impact—Not Necessarily by Choice

By Rachael Grahame ’17

Man adjusts thermostat

New research conducted in part by a UMD geographical scientist finds adults 60 and up are on track to soon become the biggest contributors to greenhouse gas emissions, due in part to many seniors living in energy-inefficient old homes or heating and cooling their homes more since they spend significant time there.

Photo by iStock

Growing populations of adults over the age of 60 in wealthy countries are a leading driver of increased greenhouse gas emissions—a dynamic due more to social structures than individual behaviors or environmental beliefs—according to a new study by a team including a University of Maryland scientist.

The findings were published this month in Nature Climate Change by geographical sciences Professor Kuishuang Feng and co-authors from the Norwegian University of Science and Technology, the University of Tokyo, Tianjin and Tsinghua universities in China and University College London.

While 45- to 59-year-olds remain the greatest contributor to greenhouse gas emissions worldwide, a 7.5% greenhouse gas emissions increase from 2005-15 among adults 60 and up indicate the group will probably soon overtake the younger generation as the largest contributor, Feng said. American and Australian seniors led in per capita greenhouse gas emissions, doubling the average output from Western nations.

“Our study is not meant to blame senior households, because it is not really their fault,” he said. “Our study was to really understand the problem and see how we can link those findings to other sustainable development goals, and to see how we can address this climate change issue in a feasible, more equitable way.”

Lifestyle coupled with inequality could be complicating the issue, Feng said. In Europe, for instance, seniors tend to live in apartments rather than houses, and use less energy as a result.

“Here it is very different; here older people tend to live in a single-family house with only one or two people,” he said. “If we have a larger house we tend to purchase more products, household appliances, and in general, consume more energy.”

House construction plays a part too. Many older adults live in older homes, which are more likely to have poor insulation and need more gas and electricity for heating in the winter and cooling in the summer. And compared to younger populations, people ages 60 and up tend to be more reliant on those heating and cooling systems as they remain at home more often than younger people, who reduce home energy consumption when they’re away.

With up to 52% of the world’s population projected to be over age 60 by the year 2100, Feng and his co-authors believe reducing older Americans’ carbon footprint should be a greater priority for the nation. Potential solutions outlined in the Nature Climate Change paper include providing older adults with the financial support to make their homes more energy-efficient; encouraging them to move into retirement communities by making them more appealing and affordable; and making public transportation more accessible.

Not all climate change mitigation funds should be invested in high-tech solutions, Feng said.

“We need to think about the consumption side; that actually drives the whole production,” he said. “Without consumption, we don’t have production. It’s one system.”

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