Baby boomers are the new climate change villains, study claims

‘Older people used to be thrifty… The ‘new elderly’ are different.’

TRONDHEIM, Norway — Are baby boomers driving climate change? A new study says older adults are responsible for more greenhouse gas emissions than any other age group now. In fact, researchers from the Norwegian University of Science and Technology found that people over 60 accounted for 25 percent of these emissions in 2005. However, that number jumped to 33 percent in 2015.

“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,” says Edgar Hertwich, an NTNU professor in the Industrial Ecology Program, in a university release.

Study authors examined greenhouse gas emissions emitted by age in 2005, 2010, and 2015. The survey included 27 countries in the European Union, Norway, the United Kingdom, Australia, Japan, and the United States.

“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 adds.

Baby boomers now have the biggest carbon footprint

In 2005, the study found that adults over 60 produced fewer emissions than people in the 30-44 and 45-59 age groups. A decade later, seniors surpassed adults in the 30-44 age group and matched the emissions of the 45-59 group.

Heran Zheng, a postdoctoral fellow at NTNU, believes that trend points to people over 60 now producing the largest carbon footprint of any age group in 2022. The study found that older adults in all 32 countries surveyed were increasing the share of climate emissions in those nations. Moreover, seniors in Japan accounted for over half of the emissions in that country.

Zheng notes that, with people living longer worldwide, it’s becoming increasingly difficult to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Estimates show the elderly populations in these countries will double between 2019 and 2050.

“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,” the researcher says. “Hopefully more senior-friendly housing communities, transport systems and infrastructure can be built.”

Older adults keep their emissions local

Compared to younger adults, the study finds people over 60 tend to contribute to more emissions in their local communities. Younger age groups consumed more imported goods, clothing, electronics, and items which cause emissions in other countries. Meanwhile, seniors generally have more wealth, which allows them to engage in more activities which produce greenhouse gases closer to home.

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

As for which country’s boomers are creating the biggest footprint, seniors in the U.S. and Australia top the list — producing 21 tons of emissions in 2015. That’s nearly double the average of seniors in Europe.

Despite people over 60 moving up the list of greenhouse gas culprits, researchers do note that every age group is still emitting fewer emissions than they were in 2005. People under 30 are leading the way in this regard, cutting their annual emissions by 3.7 tons.

The findings are published in the journal Nature Climate Change.