Demography and climate change: new study explores links between the two mega-trends of our century

Understanding the links between population dynamics and the causes and consequences of climate change will help design future-looking policies for a greener planet.

The world population has reached 8 billion, and will continue to grow for the next 40 years, while the European population is ageing rapidly and is expected to start shrinking in 2026.

This is happening in parallel with rapid changes in our climate.

new Joint Research Centre (JRC) study with accompanying video explores the connections, opportunities and challenges of demographic and climate change, and how these can be considered in EU climate policymaking.

How global demographic trends affect climate policies

Population growth is projected to reach almost 10 billion people by 2060.

Almost by definition, this will have a strong effect on global emissions: More people consume more resources, emit more greenhouse gases and require larger-scale food production, all of which exacerbate emission levels and rising temperatures.

However, the relationship between population size and climate change is neither linear nor straightforward.

There is a mismatch in population growth rates and levels of emissions across countries.

The main emitters, historic and current – the US, China, and the EU – are regions where the population has already stopped growing or is growing at a low pace.

Therefore, immediate solutions that will cut emissions by 2050 must come from the greening of the world economy and a change in consumption.

The bulk of the global population growth is happening in the world regions that currently have the lowest emissions and that are the least responsible for past emissions.

However, these regions are expected to face the slowest progress in terms of decarbonisation, improving energy efficiency and in decoupling economic growth from emissions.

Finding a sustainable path for their economic development, which is not dependent on resource intensive patterns of consumption and production is key.

Impact of ageing on emissions

The report shows that emissions tend to be closely linked to the level of income, but also the age profile of consumers.

Older people tend to emit more, as they often live in smaller households and have their consumption concentrated on carbon-intensive needs such as heating or electricity of the houses.

Research also shows that older generations are also less likely to believe that climate change is a very serious problem and less open to changing their personal behaviours.

As the European population ages, the older generations will be more and more responsible for the overall emissions. The scientists estimate that by 2060, 39% of total emissions will be produced by people above 65.

In the EU, intergenerational differences in consumption, attitudes and behaviours add new dimensions to the already strong differences in the responsibility of emissions across income levels.

Therefore, it will be more and more important to tackle these differences, and target policy measures for energy efficiency and green transitions for the older generations.

Looking to the future

Demographic changes are long-term developments that matter not only for our efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

They are even more relevant in influencing the adaptive capacity of societies to cope with already unavoidable climate change.

Not everybody will be affected by climate change extremes in the same way, and the report highlights ways to mitigate the impact on vulnerable demographic groups and help create measures to adapt.

Understanding these long-term trends and the fundamental role of demographic characteristics on emissions will help create a societal push for environmental action and sustainability.

Source: European Commission | EU Science Hub (