Climate Change and Digital Music

Information technology has a carbon footprint, that’s beyond doubt. Now, writing in a special issue of the Journal of Industrial Ecology, Christopher Weber, Jonathan Koomey and Scott Matthews in the US in work supported by grants from Microsoft Corporation and Intel Corporation have calculated that purchasing music digitally reduces the energy and carbon dioxide emissions associated with delivering music to customers by between 40% and 80% from the best-case physical CD delivery, depending on whether a customer then burns the files to CD (it’s five times better if they don’t). They point out that digital media services, such as subscription and streaming systems, like Spotify, last.fm and Pandora have higher energy usage than direct downloads, such as iTunes, Zune, amazon mp3 or any of myriad file sharing tools.

The team concedes that their calculations are very sensitive to both behavioural assumptions of how customers use digital music and several important parameters in the logistics chain of retail and e-tail delivery, such as customer transport to the store, CD packaging method, and final delivery to the customer’s home for e-tail.

“In particular,” they say, “online music’s superiority depends on the assumption that customers drive automobiles to the retail store.” Therein lies one of the biggest issues surrounding any carbon footprint calculations: the fact that it is relatively easy to overlook or overegg a specific factor depending on the stance one wishes to take.

Research Blogging IconWeber, C., Koomey, J., & Matthews, H. (2010). The Energy and Climate ChangeImplications of Different Music Delivery Methods Journal of Industrial Ecology, 14 (5), 754-769 DOI: 10.1111/j.1530-9290.2010.00269.x

Weber is at the Science and Technology Policy Institute in Washington, D.C. and Carnegie Mellon University. Koomey was visiting professor at Yale and is now at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory. Matthews is at Carnegie Mellon.

Leaving a trail of carbon footprints

This article has been reproduced from Sciencebase Science News. Copyright David Bradley.

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About David Bradley Science Writer

David Bradley has worked in science communication for more than twenty years. After reading chemistry at university, he worked and travelled in the USA, did a stint in a QA/QC lab and then took on a role as a technical editor for the Royal Society of Chemistry. Then, following an extended trip to Australia, he returned and began contributing as a freelance to the likes of New Scientist and various trade magazines. He has been growing his portfolio and and has constructed the Sciencebase Science News and the Sciencetext technology website. He also runs the SciScoop Science Forum which is open to guest contributors on scientific topics.
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