Climate Change and the Ageing Population

This project, based at the Oxford Institute of Ageing, explores conflicts and convergences between climate change and the ageing population in the UK and Japan. According to the UN, half the global city population will be over 60 by the year 2050, and many of the conveniences that address age-related changes (automobiles, elevators, air-conditioning) are also highly dependent on energy. By linking together these two drivers, this project aims to develop flexible responses to the combined challenges of climate and demographic change.

Project context

Current thinking on forms of adaptation and response has tended to address climate change and ageing as separate challenges, and they are rarely, if ever, linked by researchers though they are highly interconnected. This project examines the interactions between the processes as well as the adaptations or responses they require. Japan and the UK have been chosen to provide key comparative cases. Both have an ageing population, driven by falling fertility and mortality. Japan is predicted to have 44% of its population over 60 by 2050, and approaching one million centenarians; the UK is predicted to have around 30% over 60 and 100,000 centenarians. Over 90% of the UK’s and 80% of Japan’s population will be living in urban environments. Most of this population therefore will be vulnerable not only to rising sea levels, but also to the heat sink effects associated with large urban conglomerations. Given that our future cities will have both the highest predicted temperature rises and highest concentrations of older people, it is thus essential that they are able to respond flexibly to these synchronous challenges. However, it is also clear that these two major global drivers of 21st century change – global warming and population ageing – will have points of both convergence and of conflict. These will operate within different frameworks and need to be addressed at different levels, sizes, densities, structures and functions, in order to understand the opportunities and challenges which may arise.

Research questions

This project seeks to address the flexibility of cities at two broad levels: sustainable urban environments and the built infrastructure which influences this sustainability so profoundly.

Climate change, energy requirements, physiological stress and the ageing process.

Research has shown that the ageing process leads to changing physical and mental capacity, lowered sensory ability, reduced temperature moderation, and greater susceptibility to environmental stress (Harper & Marcus, 2006). The 20th century saw scientific and technical advances which helped alleviate many of the negative aspects of age-related changes, for example, cars and elevators which increased access and mobility, HVAC systems which increased comfort, advanced lighting and audio systems, which compensated for declining senses, and advanced medical interventions which delayed mortality. Many of these, however, are highly energy dependent, and yet have now become part of the socio-economic and technical lock-ins of the infrastructure and buildings of the modern city and the life lived out in its environment. Indeed, as the populations of these cities age, so these path dependencies will, if anything, become more entrenched.

Impact summary

It is well understood that the cities of the future will have to adapt and respond to both global climate and global ageing. Our aim is to explore the potential interactions between these two distinct lines of policy development, and find practical solutions to the problems of sustainability in urban living that will harmonise the need to respond to climate change with the needs of a growing older population. Cities can adapt effectively to climate change only if the adaptations take proper account of the changing needs of the populations that live in them. It is essential, therefore, not merely to warn policy-makers that the proposed solution to one set of problems may generate other problems, but also, where possible, to propose solutions that offer gains across both.

About the research team

Principal researcher
Professor Sarah Harper, Oxford Institute of Ageing, University of Oxford

Senior research fellow
Dr. Andreas Hoff, Oxford Institute of Ageing, University of Oxford

Dr Chris West, Director of the UK Climate Impacts Programme (UKCIP) & Senior Research Fellow, Environmental Change Institute, University of Oxford

Professor C Alan Short
, Department of Architecture, University of Cambridge Professor Jeremy Myerson, Royal College of Art, London
Professor Andrew Woods, BP Institute for Multiphase Fluid Flow, University of Cambridge
Professor Yasuyuki Hirai, Kyushu University, Japan
Professor Satoshi Kose, Shizuoka University of Art and Culture (SUAC), Japan