Anyone who is environmentally conscious believes that anything that eliminates something physical for something in the cloud is better. While this might be true in many situations, it’s not so much the case when it comes to music, which isn’t as green as you might think, according to a professor in musicology at Oslo University.
Musicologist Kyle Devine says digital music streaming services produce far more greenhouses gases than older formats like CDs in his book Decomposed: The Political Ecology of Music. It appears that there are many hidden costs of online listening.
Devine looked at the carbon emissions from the peak years of each music format (1977 for vinyl, 1988 for tapes, and 2000 for CDs) then compared them to digital music streaming. The results were surprising.
In the United States in the year 2000 (the peak year for CDs) all the previous music formats produced about 40 percent less carbon dioxide than digital music services did in 2015 to 2016! Despite using far less plastic, digital music produced nearly 200 million kilograms more greenhouse gas emissions in 2016.
What we forget about is that the server farms that make up the “cloud” use tremendous amounts of electricity for power and cooling, which results in high greenhouse gas emissions. This is actually something that every cloud service is aware of and tries to keep under control by locating facilities in colder environments or places with plenty of renewable energy. While this battle could one day turn carbon neutral, that’s certainly not the case in 2020.
Lest you think that going back to the vinyl record is the path forward, Devine traced the polyvinyl chloride (PVC) pellets pellets used to make records back to a company in Bangkok, Thailand. There he found a list of environmental and health concerns all related to their production.
“Polyvinyl chloride… both on the production side and the disposal and decomposition side, is known as a particularly nasty form of plastic,” he stated.
Believe it or not, CDs may be the most environmentally friendly format, says Devine, but you have to play one at least 27 times before it has a better carbon footprint then streaming.
So when it comes to being green, it looks like there is no better alternative to streaming music in the end. One can only hope that ongoing efforts to reduce power usage in server farms eventually produces a cleaner music format as a result.