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Digital Downloads vs. CD's: Which is Greener?

Music Downloads

Here’s one for you: streaming your music may be less green than listening to it on CD.


MusicTank, a music industry business development network based in the U.K., has issued a report called “The Dark Side of the Tune: The Hidden Energy Cost of Digital Music Consumption.” The study, written by Dagfinn Bach, offers this assertion that would suggest digital music can take up a larger carbon footprint than a CD of the same music:

“Streaming or downloading 12 tracks, without compression, just 27 times by one user would, in energy terms, equate to the production and shipping of one physical 12-track CD album,” Bach writes.

Elsewhere in the study, Bach estimates that by 2027, data traffic around the world could hit 1 yottabyte per year and represent more than one fifth of the earth’s 2010 electricity consumption. A yottabyte, by the way, is equal to one quadrillion gigabytes.

Bach says in the report that “a ‘close-to-consumer’ cloud solution might be the most environmentally-friendly option.” As a solution of sorts (albeit a somewhat radical one), he suggests putting all of the songs ever recorded in history on a 1 petabyte drive. A petabyte is 1024 terabytes (read: a whole lot smaller than a yottabyte). This drive with all the music ever recorded could then serve as a “one-stop-shop” for anyone needing to access any digital music – all you need is a paid subscription.

If you’ve been reading up to this point and found your skepticism steadily rising, you’re not alone. I’m no expert on energy consumption, but I have a few qualms with some of statements made in the study.

First of all, Spotify already has built-in code to ensure that song streams are not unnecessarily repeated, and I would foresee this kind of technology becoming more and more refined as we move even further into the digital age. But the biggest problem I have is the estimated amount of energy that will be used in the future.

While experts today can produce a fairly precise estimate of the energy cost of producing and shipping a CD today, to estimate the future energy cost of a digital stream or download is downright impossible. We have no way of knowing what kind of technology will be in place even a couple of years from now, much less in 2027.

The biggest energy expenditure in digital streaming and downloading comes not from users actually performing the download, but the servers hosting these files (and in particular the cooling systems that prevent these servers from overheating). But even now many of these servers are being converted to solid state drives that use less energy themselves and also, more importantly, eliminate the need for the cooling systems that use so much energy. It would be a safe bet to say that even more environmental friendly technology will be developed in the years to come.

Trying to estimate the future energy cost of digital music consumption is about as effective as comparing today’s average salary with the average salary of 1960 without adjusting for inflation. Of course energy consumption is a huge problem that will be getting bigger as we move into the future, and we should all be aware of its impact on us and our environment. However, with the great advances being made in server technology, it’s hard to imagine a future world where digital downloading and streaming leaves a far larger carbon footprint than CDs.

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