The Link Between Aging and Climate Change


By Derek Yach

In Davos this year, leaders from around the world gathered to talk about risks such as interstate conflict, water crises, the spread of infectious diseases, cyberattacks and fiscal crises (as in the Global Risks Report 2015). While these are worthy and important issues, also worthy of consideration and examination is the compelling link between climate change and ageing – an intractable and long-term trend that could potentially impact our world for decades.

Climate change and ageing were both on the Davos agenda, independent of one other. And not surprisingly, many sessions addressed the importance of urgent government and corporate action. But to take it a step further, we should also consider the interactions between ageing and climate change, and the impact this interaction might have on global health and financial stability.

In 2003, Peter Heller, then at the IMF, identified both ageing and climate change as the top major threats to long-term fiscal policy. While action has been much too slow, both issues have been recognized as major drivers of macro-economic and social change. Immediately prior to Davos, the Stockholm Resilience Centre published an update of their work on planetary boundaries showing that these had been exceeded since their last report in 2009. Put simply, as more people live longer, the human population uses more resources. This places a greater burden on the Earth’s environment, and contributes to climate change. Ageing and climate change are unquestionably linked.

A deeper look at the links between climate change and longevity is long overdue. In most countries, we have built economies that are giving us unprecedented improvements in the quality and quantity of life. But we now see how these very economies are also based on extensive use of non-renewable resources and development approaches that have pushed us beyond many planetary boundaries. Continued and increased longevity needs to be underpinned by a more sustainable economy – and the time for transition is now. The work of the Lancet Commission on Planetary Health will highlight the urgency of change for the future health of all.

The good news is that there were many examples cited in Davos of governments and corporations already blazing towards that more sustainable future. Companies are changing as they see long-term opportunities unfold, they are being nudged by the growth of integrated and sustainable financial reporting bodies (IRRS; GRI; RobecoSAM 2015 report), and they are being motivated into action by leading global and local NGOs. RobecoSAM’s latest report shows just how widespread the progress is across multiple sectors towards building sustainability goals into corporate practices. The long sleepy life insurance sector, for example, is building new ways of enhancing the longevity of its members in ways that will also promote environmental sustainability.

We need government policies that can support corporate and scientific innovation to ensure that longevity brings rewards to society without increasing the burden on our planet.

In the meantime, each one of us can start now to enhance our prospects for healthy lives and a healthy planet by taking small steps: eat less beef; cut palm oil products from diets; walk and cycle more; waste less; value nature more.

And one more thing you can do is to share your wisdom and knowledge of the link between ageing and climate change with the emerging generation of leaders. I’d suggest that Davos 2016 would be a good place to have that discussion.


Author: Derek Yach, Executive Director,Vitality Institut, and Chair, World Economic Forum Global Agenda Council on Ageing

Image: REUTERS/Mike Blake (via World Economic Forum)


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