Today’s streaming subscribers today may believe that their music and video consumption is more environmentally conscious than it has been in the past. After all, vinyl records, CDs, and DVDs have been replaced by cloud-driven services like Spotify and Hulu, eliminating the need for the bulky and wasteful technology that supported our viewing habits.
This transition from physical to intangible when it comes to the way we access media may seem more environmentally friendly since it appears to eliminate “e-waste” in the form of tangible items such as discarded electronics, CDs, and batteries. In fact, the amount of plastic used to make physical records dropped from 61 million kilograms in the 2000s to about 8 million kilograms as of 2016 due to the advent of streaming services. This reduction in physical waste has cut not only emissions created by the manufacturing process of these items but their presence in landfills as well.
However, just because our music is stored on devices that fit in the palm of our hands rather than massive record collections, it doesn’t mean listening to our favorite albums on repeat comes without a price to our environment.
Currently, the energy it takes to stream and download digital media has caused greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions associated with music consumption to rapidly increase, rising from 157 million kilograms of GHG in 2000 to 200 to 350 million kilograms of GHG in 2016, despite our decreasing dependence on traditional forms of media. In terms of the contribution to global carbon emissions, the Information and Communications Technologies (ICT) industry is responsible for 2% of the world’s total CO2 emissions, a share equal to the footprint of the entire aviation industry.
The technology at the heart of these emissions is the Cloud, which powers most major streaming services and is hosted by data centers that require large amounts of energy to store the files we stream on active, cooled servers. These data centers and their networks are also responsible for the destruction of over 600 square miles of forest in the U.S.
In addition to the energy and resources used to store your media, the transmission process that sends your favorite song across the network to a router and then to your screen consumes a significant amount of energy as well. For example, Google estimates that one of the 3.8 million web searches that occur every minute uses the same amount of energy as a 60-watt light bulb would over the course of 17 seconds.
Thus, the danger of Cloud technology not only lies in its inefficient energy consumption but also the rate at which we collectively use its services. Spotify, a major music-streaming platform, has 207 million active subscribers who listen to approximately 60 billion hours of material annually. Additionally, online video services like Netflix and Amazon Video make up 60% of all consumer internet traffic, costing the environment the same amount of energy to power one hour of content weekly as it does to power two fridges in a year. Even the articles you view in online publications create a large footprint despite reducing paper consumption, making up 50% of the total climate emissions of newspaper publications.
In response to the growing concern surrounding the Cloud’s emissions, companies like Spotify, Apple, and Google that rely on data centers to power their products have shown varying levels of commitment to improving their transparency and sustainability. In Spotify’s first public sustainability report in 2017, the company committed to reaching carbon neutrality and highlighted the switch of its server operations onto the Google Cloud Platform’s (GCP) carbon-neutral system. The move allowed them to close six of the company’s seven data centers and reduce their carbon footprint by 1,500 tons. By choosing this approach, they have become “100 percent carbon neutral,” investing in renewable energy at a rate that equals or matches the amount of energy they are using. Other major streaming services have also consolidated their energy usage in a similar way including Amazon Web Services who hosts SoundCloud on their servers, and Apple, whose servers host both Apple Music and Beats 1 Radio.
However, despite efforts to boost the efficiency of these servers and the streaming industry’s increased investment in green cloud technology, consumers’ reliance on streaming services have negated the benefits of these strides towards sustainability. IT companies have enjoyed significant achievements in reducing their emissions, but they are also making changes that reduce the cost of powering cloud-based services, causing an increase in their overall consumption.
Based on his research on the environmental impact of data usage, Mark Mills likens the sustainability of using the cloud for streaming to the environmental impact of taking the train rather than driving. In theory, completing tasks using the cloud instead of our hard drives can reduce energy usage, as sharing through a larger shared server is more efficient than using an individual one, just as taking the train that serves a large group of commuters is more sustainable than driving your own vehicle. However, if consumers collectively begin to use the cloud as their only source of media, Mills likens its true impact to “taking a cross-country train ride, and using the financial savings to take long car trips at each stop.”
While streaming services and cloud technology are non-negotiable elements of our digital reality, there are ways in which we as users can make more sustainable choices regarding our media consumption. For example, vinyl records and DVDs may actually be the most sustainable way of enjoying your favorite albums and movies. If you only listen to an album a few times, then streaming is the best option. However, if you plan to listen to a record more than 27 times, a physical copy is more environmentally friendly, as streaming will eventually use more energy than it takes to produce one CD. Once a CD or vinyl is purchased, it can be played over and over again with only a record player consuming energy, saving 72-kilowatt hours of electricity a year
However, if abandoning your Spotify or Apple Music playlists is not an option, making sure your songs and albums are downloaded for offline listening can also reduce your energy uptake. Using local storage on phones and computers stores the data closer to your device and reduces the need for streaming over long distances from inefficient, remote servers.
It’s also up to consumers to hold streaming services accountable, pushing them to commit to and invest in sustainable sources of energy. A large part of this accountability must also include improved transparency regarding the carbon footprint created by platforms, allowing cloud customers, to understand the true impact of their habits.
While the emissions created by the Cloud may not be visible, the carbon footprint of our cloud-powered lifestyle is a significant threat to the environment. Although it might seem like a drop in the ocean when faced with the challenge of combating climate change, adapting our individual habits and ethical decision-making as streamers have the potential to lessen the harmful impacts of our media consumption.