How Digital Music Can Fight Climate Change

Anecdotally we knew it was true: Digital music downloaded to our computers eliminates all that energy required to produce and ship CDs. But a group of researchers from Carnegie Mellon University, Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory and Stanford University, including longtime IT energy researcher Jonathan Koomey (who spoke at our Green:Net ’09 conference earlier this year), have concluded that yep, in general buying digital music reduces the energy and CO2 emissions of delivering the music by between 40 and 80 percent compared with traditional CD distribution methods. That’s despite the additional energy used to download the music via the Internet, and thus the group concludes that “[O]nline delivery is clearly superior from an energy and CO2 perspective.”

The research was done by Koomey, Project Scientist & Professor at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory & Stanford University, along with Christopher Weber, Research Assistant Professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering at Carnegie Mellon, and H. Scott Matthews, Research Director of the Green Design Institute at Carnegie Mellon. The research compares an album published on a CD and shipped to a brick-n-mortar retail outlet, an album published on a CD and bought via e-commerce (both shipped via truck and air), an album downloaded and used digitally, and an album downloaded and burned to a CD used with and without a jewel case (these guys were thorough).

The findings are important because despite the growing concern over the increasing amount of energy used by the Internet, this proves that the Internet can be a substantial source for dematerialization — replacing atoms with digital bits, reducing goods created and reducing carbon emissions.

There are a few exceptions, however, in the case of digital music. If the buyer walks to a retail outlet to buy a CD, instead of driving, it’s about the same energy and carbon emissions as buying an album online and then burning it to a CD. In addition, if the size of the album is 260 MB (up from the more traditional 60-100 MB) then downloading and burning that album to a CD is about the same as buying an actual CD via e-commerce, because of the added energy from downloading it via the Internet. These subtleties are interesting because it shows what was taking up a significant portion of the energy and carbon emissions from the traditional CD distribution method: just driving to the store.

The research was one of three reports that were released on Monday morning (at 9AM pacific) by Koomey, and developed for Intel and Microsoft. Another of Koomey’s reports looks at how data center developers need to consider the cost of power required to run data centers, in addition to the costs of buying the IT equipment and the performance of the equipment itself. That research found that companies that are running cloud computing services (shared, virtualized computing power) have been early movers when it comes to recognizing the overall cost of energy in data centers. Koomey’s third report looks at how PCs are becoming increasingly efficient (via the metric “computations per kilowatt-hour”) but there is still significant room for faster, more efficient computing in the future.

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