Wealthy senior citizens in the US and Australia have the highest per capita footprint, twice the average level of western Europe and more than triple that of Japan. … Elderly people consumed about a third more meat and dairy than their middle-aged compatriots, especially in Western European countries. The higher consumption of protein-rich food translates to greater amounts of energy needed to produce it.
The growing ranks of wealthy senior citizens leading carbon-intensive lifestyles in developed countries pose a challenge for global efforts to reduce carbon emissions, according to a scientific study.
The trend creates obstacles for the emission mitigation efforts of developing economies such as China and the Middle East, as those regions are responsible for producing most of the world’s consumer goods, said the article published in the scientific journal Nature on Wednesday.
The study by a team of international scientists revealed how the consumption habits and carbon footprints of rapidly ageing populations affect greenhouse gas emissions, and highlights the need for carbon mitigation strategies for a greying society.
It is estimated that the share of the population aged over 65 will double between 2019 and 2050 in developed countries, while 43 countries will see their populations decline, according to data from the United Nations.
The study led by Zheng Heran, a postdoctoral researcher at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology, studied the greenhouse gas (GHG) footprint of household consumption across different age groups in 32 developed countries.
The survey covered the US, Japan, Australia and 29 countries in Europe, which together represent more than 80 per cent of global gross domestic product and 90 per cent of the population in high-income countries.
It found that people aged over 60 pose serious challenges to global emission reduction efforts.
“Our results showed that this demographic group has a carbon-intensive lifestyle, suggesting a great challenge for the global decarbonisation initiative,” the scientists wrote in the article.
“We highlight the carbon-intensive expenditure pattern of the aged group resulting in the highest per capita GHG footprint, which presents both an immediate and long-term challenge. Both rising per capita expenditures and a growing population in this demographic were twin drivers of this trend.”
The total contribution of senior citizens to consumption-based emissions increased from 25.2 per cent to 32.7 per cent between 2005 and 2015 in the countries monitored in the research, Zheng and his colleagues found.
Those in the US and Australia have the highest per capita footprint, twice the average level of western Europe and more than triple that of Japan.
The trend is mainly a result of changes in the expenditure patterns of seniors, the study said. As people age, they are more likely to spend longer at home because of mobility problems, and more likely to live in larger houses, which tend to use more energy.
Meanwhile, the study found elderly people consumed about a third more meat and dairy than their middle-aged compatriots, especially in Western European countries. The higher consumption of protein-rich food translates to greater amounts of energy needed to produce it.
The study also found older people bought more manufactured goods than their younger peers, which placed a high emissions burden on developing countries that produced the goods.
The consumption of manufactured products by the older group in the West led to higher outsourced emissions in developing countries such as China, Middle Eastern countries and Russia.
The footprint of the aged population in Japan and the US particularly relied on production and emissions in China. The country accounted for 50.2 per cent and 40.7 per cent, respectively, of their outsourced GHG footprint for manufactured products in 2015, according to the study.
The elderly might be consuming more locally-sourced goods and services, but for manufactured products they still depended on developing countries such as China, Zheng told the Post.
Although this reliance could be reduced by switching to domestic products, it would still put some pressure on China’s manufacturing sector in the foreseeable future, he said. A transition to low-carbon manufacturing in China could reduce this impact, he added.
The study suggested policymakers focus on lowering the carbon intensity of the energy system and livestock industries at home. Shared housing would also reduce residential emissions, it said.
“Key to responding to an ageing society are low-carbon technologies and clean energy systems,” Zheng said.
China too faces a demographic crisis of a rapidly ageing population and an unprecedented low in its newborn population. Last year, it had 267.36 million people aged over 60, representing 18.9 per cent of its population, up from 264.02 million a year earlier.
To accommodate the needs of the elderly, China released guidelines last year to actively develop the “silver economy”, and called for improvements in infrastructure, services and heath care for its senior citizens. It is expected that China’s silver spending will triple from US$750 billion to US$2.1 trillion in 2030, overtaking Japan to become the second-biggest silver economy in the world, after the US, according to World Data Lab.
“China’s elderly population could be a different story. One reason for the higher carbon footprint of the elderly in the West is affluence. They are rich and can spend a lot. But, that may not be the case in China,” Zheng said. “The elderly in China experienced austerity in the last century, and they are aware of living in a non-luxurious way, relatively speaking.”
Source: South China Morning Post, 11 Mar, 2022.
Republished under a Creative Commons license.