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5 November 2021

How environmentally damaging is music streaming?

Streaming has a lower carbon footprint than any physical format, but the huge growth in our music consumption more than outweighs those savings.

By Ellen Peirson-Hagger and Katharine Swindells

There is a crisis in the vinyl industry. As the New Statesman reported in September, huge delays at vinyl pressing plants, coupled with rising prices due to shortages of raw materials, are making the format “unmanageable” for many artists and labels. Vinyl sales are now the highest they’ve been since the early 1990s, but the format’s environmental impact is significant: data shows that the estimated carbon footprint of a vinyl record is more than 12 times that of a CD.

But today most people don’t get their music from vinyl or a CD, but from streaming services, with an estimated 487 million people worldwide subscribed to music streaming platforms. So how does streaming’s environmental impact compare to that of physical formats?

“There is this association that ‘in the cloud’ means it’s intangible, but there is a carbon footprint when you stream music,” said Sharon George, a senior lecturer in the department of environmental sustainability at Keele University.

On a per-unit basis, streaming has a far lower carbon footprint than any physical format. Estimates put the carbon footprint of an hour of media streaming at around 55 grams of CO2 equivalent, while CDs are over three times that, and vinyl and cassettes release over 2 kilograms of CO2 a unit. But the huge growth in our music consumption more than outweighs those savings.

Between 1977 and 2016, the carbon emissions of recorded music formats in the US grew by 45 per cent, up to over 200,000 tonnes a year, writes Kyle Devine, an associate professor in the department of musicology at the University of Oslo, in Decomposed: The Political Ecology of Music. Digital music formats account for 94 per cent of that.

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New Statesman data analysis shows the carbon footprint of Spotify streams of Olivia Rodrigo’s hit single “Drivers License” since January 2021 is greater than flying from London to New York and back 4,000 times, or the annual emissions of 500 people in the UK.

Every stage of music streaming requires energy. Server farms, located all over the world, contain rows and rows of hard drives that store data, such as text messages, photos and the contents of music streaming platforms like Spotify and Apple Music. These hard drives require huge amounts of energy to power and to keep cool.

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When you stream a song, data is transmitted from a server farm to a more local access network via underground and undersea cables, which also use energy. Once the data is local, it will be cached – kept for a certain amount of time – at a more local server, reducing errors and lags should you want to stream the song again. Once the song reaches your device, it relies on a wi-fi or other internet connection, as well as a charged phone or laptop. The process may be “invisible” in a way that the manufacturing of vinyl, formed of a derivative of crude oil, is not, but it still requires energy. 

In a 2019 article for the Conversation, George and co-author Deirdre McKay calculated that if you listen to an album more than 27 times, it makes better environmental sense to buy that album on CD rather than to stream it. Speaking to the New Statesman in October 2021, George said she had revised that calculation, using updated numbers on carbon reporting figures for plastic (used for both a CD and its case) and for media streaming. Her conclusion? Listening to an album via a streaming platform for just five hours is equal in terms of carbon to the plastic of a physical CD. The comparative time for a vinyl record is 17 hours.

These are estimations. The calculation for a CD doesn’t take into account the energy used to power the machine that manufactures it, the plastic that may be used to package it for delivery, the air or road miles used in transportation, or the electricity required to power a CD player, said George. Similarly, the carbon required to stream a song will differ depending on the quality at which it is streamed, whether you’re watching a YouTube video as well as listening to the audio, and the device you’re using.

Furthermore, the internationalised nature of the process means the environmental effect will differ depending on where your stream is coming from, and what sort of power – coal, hydro or otherwise – that country relies on. As explained in its 2019 sustainability report, Spotify no longer has its own data centres, but outsources them to Google Cloud Platform (GCP). Spotify is keen to emphasise GCP’s commitment to renewable energy, but a lack of detail makes it hard to unpick the full environmental impact of Spotify’s data storage and transmission.

That the estimation for a CD has changed downwards in just two years is because of “updated efficiencies and scale in terms of our consumption”, said George. That there are so many variations in the amount of energy consumed when streaming also shows how “our behaviour and our consumer choices can make a huge difference to the carbon footprint”. Downloading an album you will listen to repeatedly on to a local hard drive is more energy efficient than streaming it multiple times. The reliance on energy in every aspect of the process also emphasises the importance of renewable power being implemented worldwide.

For Kyle Devine, “the one-to-one comparison [between streaming and CDs or vinyl] misses the point... It’s not me downloading an album vs me buying an LP,” he said. “It’s millions of people making the choice to stream millions of albums all the time.”

Devine referenced the Jevons paradox, which occurs when technological progress increases a resource’s efficiency. Also called the “rebound effect”, the paradox was first used to explain increasing coal use in 19th-century England, and it can readily be applied to music streaming: that millions of artists’ discographies are available to everyone, and cheaper than ever before, means more music is being consumed. A couple of decades ago, you may have listened to a few albums over the course of a day. Today, listeners can start a playlist when they first get up and leave it running until they go to bed 15 hours later.

Recorded music is not the most pressing concern when it comes to climate. Even within the industry, the touring economy has a far greater carbon footprint, and Devine gets asked why he isn’t instead working on the beef or airline industries. “I’ve never claimed that music is the most concerning part of this,” he said. “But it is a microcosm of what’s going on everywhere.”

[See also: “It’s unmanageable”: How the vinyl industry reached breaking point]

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