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The environmental impact of streaming music

The environmental impact of listening to recorded music has never been higher. We dig into the details and explore ways you can green up your music habits.

The price people are willing to pay to listen to music has never been lower, but the environmental impact has never been higher. This is the finding of The Cost of Music, a collaborative study by the Universities of Glasgow and Oslo published earlier this year. In this post, we explore the changing environmental impact of the music industry, and ways you can listen to music with the planet in mind.

Streaming music is better for plastic, worse for emissions

Picture the scene. It’s 1977, you’re wearing a mustard corduroy suit, you’ve got a dodgy fringe and you’re listening to Fleetwood Mac on vinyl. The music industry is using 58,000 tonnes of plastic. That’s the weight of 18,000 elephants. 

Now it’s ten years later, you’re sporting Working Girl shoulder pads and listening to Erasure, this time on cassette. You’ve still got the dodgy fringe. The music industry is using 56,000 tonnes of plastic. Fast-forward to the year 2000 and you’re rocking out to Bon Jovi’s “It’s My Life” on CD. The industry is now using 61,000 tonnes of plastic. 

And now we’re back in the present, where downloading and streaming music has become the preferred way to listen to recorded music globally. The plastic used in the music industry plummeted to 8,000 tonnes by 2016. This is definitely good news. On first look at these figures, you might think that the rise of downloading or streaming music is making music better for the environment. 

But there’s more to the story. The move from tangible music products like CDs and vinyl to streaming music on devices has resulted in more carbon emissions than any other time in the history of music.

In the heyday of vinyl, the music industry was using 58,000 tonnes of plastic. That’s the weight of 18,000 elephants. Photo credit: Unsplash.com

The internet is responsible for 2% of global carbon emissions 

A huge amount of energy is required to power our new music habits. Streaming music needs to be stored online and processed before it reaches our internet-connected devices. Data centres make this possible.

Data centres are essentially large warehouses for the computer servers controlling global internet traffic. It’s not just music - most of the world's internet traffic goes through data centres, including other streaming platforms such as Netflix, Facebook and YouTube. Data centres require a lot of power. And because of the amount of heat computers generate, they need a lot of cooling too.

Data centres are estimated to consume around 1% of the world's electricity every year, causing 0.3% of global carbon emissions. Some of the energy used to power them is generated from clean energy sources, but a lot still comes from burning fossil fuels. 

The internet is responsible for 2% of global carbon emissions, the same as the emissions from aviation. By 2030, the internet is on track to consume as much as 20% of the world's electricity.

The joint study from the universities of Glasgow and Oslo estimates that music consumption in the 2000s caused 157,000 tonnes of emissions. Today, that figure is closer to 300,000 tonnes, which is the same as the yearly emissions of the island of Saint Lucia.

Data centres consume around 1% of the world's electricity every year, causing 0.3% of global carbon emissions. Photo credit: Flickr.com

Being transparent can help create positive change

Dr Kyle Devine, who led the study, is keen to point out that this is not about making anyone feel guilty for listening to music online. He uses Spotify himself. The study is meant to be “a simple exercise in transparency and accountability; to talk about things and think about them.” 

One way to tackle the increasing CO2 emissions is to make sure new data centres are powered by renewable energy, and to switch existing data centres to green energy too. This will significantly minimise emissions. 

And we’ve already seen positive change – when Devine began his research, no one at Spotify was able to talk about the environmental impact of their service. Since then, Spotify have published their first sustainability report, and moved their servers to Google Cloud who've committed to becoming 100% carbon neutral. 

There are more simple fixes too. Keeping data centres underground can significantly cut the amount of energy required to cool them. Getting to a point where data centres are more efficient, and legitimately running on renewable energy is a massive and important undertaking, but it’s also just one component of greening the internet.

You can use Greenpeace's #ClickClean to find out if the apps or streaming platforms you use are powered by green or non-green energy. And even small changes in your own behaviour can have an impact. If you know you’ll listen to the same song or album many times, think about downloading it to your device. You won’t need to stream it multiple times, so you’ll use a bit less power and cause fewer emissions. 

Bulb HQ is carbon neutral

Bulb is a tech services company with around 400 employees in London, which means our energy, internet and server usage are significant. In March this year we made Bulb HQ totally carbon neutral. We monitor server usage as part of our environmental reporting and we buy carbon credits to offset these emissions. We know that carbon offsetting isn’t a get out of jail free card - it should always be the last step in any carbon management programme. We continue to think of ways to minimise our internet and server usage and make sure as many of our servers as possible are with companies supplied by renewable energy.


Can you think of other ways to listen to music with the environment in mind? Join the conversation in the Bulb Community.