Saturday, October 20, 2012

It Ain't Easy Being Green: Digital Music's Hidden Costs to Our Environment

UK-based music industry network Music Tank recently published a report by Dagfinn Bach that raises several interesting points with regard to digital music and the environment. The main takeaway - digital music consumption may be more energy intensive than you think.

At first thought, the shift to digital may seem like a no-brainer as far as the environment is concerned. No physical product to produce. No transportation required to distribute the product. No facilities needed to store it. No physical waste to dispose of when the product is thrown out. But the reality is, as Bach notes, "digital music isn’t distributed in an environmental vacuum". The rapidly increasing growth in online data traffic, he continues "depends on sprawling server farms and a complex, energy-sapping network infrastructure. This is on top of the energy consumed in device manufacture and operation of a vast array of devices." In other words, while it may seem like energy costs are disappearing, they may in fact just be getting shifted to new areas.

Bach estimates that the streaming or downloading of 12 uncompressed tracks just 27 times uses about the same amount of energy as is needed to produce and ship one 12-track CD. Using these figures, it would seem that once a consumer exceeds 27 streams of a particular 12 song set, streaming becomes more energy intensive than physical production. He then concludes, "it would therefore appear that repeated streaming of individual tracks may not necessarily be a desirable long-term solution with respect to energy consumption for the life cycle of a sound recording."

That said, this conclusion may be missing some key considerations. Most notably, Bach uses a 12-track CD to evaluate the "energy consumption for the life cycle of a sound recording". We're talking a single sound recording vs. a 12-track disc here. Consumption patterns have certainly changed with the shift from physical to digital, largely favoring a more singles based market. Music isn't necessarily tied to the album format the way it once was, and consumers now have the freedom to pick and choose individual tracks from across many more releases than they once could. Thus, for Bach to assume that "repeated streaming of individual tracks" may threaten to cost more in energy than physical production, he also assumes that the average digital consumer, with their entire digital consumption history divided into defined sets of 12 tracks, will stream each of these sets in total more than 27 times. Is this likely to be the case? It's hard to say for sure, but with so much new music being released so regularly, it doesn't seem too far fetched that consumers may instead tend to listen to more music less times.

There are other questions too. How does the energy used to consume the CD once it is received factor in? What about the energy needed to process the CD once it is disposed of? Is there any consideration for efficiencies gained in the hardware and processing of the server farms themselves? Or efficiencies in improved bandwidth and content delivery?

No matter the questions, it would be foolish to disregard the impact that an increasingly global digital economy has on our environment. There is always room for improvement - to lessen this impact - and Bach offers several ideas to this end. Caching content locally and improving search and filtering solutions can cut down on the need for repeated streams from the cloud. Similarly, more regional "close to consumer" cloud solutions, or services that utilize certain peer-to-peer file sharing technologies can cut down on on the distance that data needs to travel. As he notes, "the shorter the journey the more energy-efficient the transfer". Savings can also be found by utilizing more energy-efficient wireless protocols such as WLAN and Bluetooth. Much of making these solutions a reality may depend on the cooperation of infrastructure providers, delivery networks, ISPs and content owners, but the good news is there is plenty to work towards.

Have any thoughts on the future of digital consumption, its impact on our environment and how to maximize its energy efficiency? Leave your comments below!


"The Dark Side Of The Tune: The Hidden Energy Cost Of Digital Music Consumption" from Music Tank:

- Download a copy of the full report for free at:

More from Music Tank:

"Streaming media could have larger carbon footprint than plastic discs" from Paid Content:

"So much for Post-Scarcity, unless Electricity is free?" from The Trichordist:

"Streaming Music May Be More Environmentally Damaging Than CDs" from One Green Planet:

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