Think streaming music is more eco-friendly than plastic CDs? Think again

One Change: Streaming music creates up to 350,000 tonnes of greenhouse gases in US alone

The environmental impact of listening to music has never been higher. Photograph: iStock

The environmental impact of listening to music has never been higher. Photograph: iStock

 

“Now there’s a hole in the sky, and the ground’s not cold,” sang the Pixies in 1989. Monkey’s Gone to Heaven may have been referring to the ozone layer, which was the big talking point back then, but the song’s broader point about the environment is more relevant than ever.

More recently, Billie Eilish sang about hills burning in California in her 2019 release, All the Good Girls Go to Hell: “Don’t say I didn’t warn ya.” The climate crisis also found its way into Paul McCartney’s Despite Repeated Warnings in 2018, while Neil Young’s Shut It Down the following year was a call to action: “They’re all wearing climate change, as cool as they can be.”

Billie Eilish: ‘I never wanted a normal life.’ Photograph: Valerie Macon/AFP via Getty
Billie Eilish. Photograph: Valerie Macon/AFP via Getty

Lyrical content aside, the way in which we consume music is becoming a tricky subject. While it may seem better that we’ve moved away from buying physical vinyl, cassettes and CDs, the energy consumption that goes with streaming music is worrying. And while I don’t intend to ruin your listening, this issue is part of a bigger picture concerning renewables, the cloud and the future of digital consumption.

A study by the University of Glasgow and University of Oslo (2019) found that while it has never been cheaper to listen to music, and we are spending much less of our income on it (as individuals) than we were a few decades ago, the environmental impact of listening to music has never been higher. Overall, plastic production in the recording industry has fallen in the shift to digital – but the carbon emissions costs have soared.

In 1977, for example, when sales of vinyl were at their height, the US recording industry used 58 million kilograms of plastic, compared with 61 million kilograms in 2000, when CD sales peaked. In 2016, with the predominance of downloading and streaming, plastic use dropped to 8 million kilograms.

Every time you stream a song, however, it costs energy. That song has to be stored somewhere, usually on massive servers that need to be kept cool and require a constant supply of power. It is estimated that streaming music leads to an estimated 200-350 million kilograms of greenhouse gases in the United States alone.

So what’s the solution? It’s unlikely that we’re all going to start collecting vintage vinyl or rooting out old CDs. And it’s hard to imagine coming back from the instant accessibility offered by Spotify, for example. But is it sustainable for the environment – and artists, given the measly sums they receive for streamed work?

The way I see it, the problem with streaming music – and TV or films – reinforces the urgent need for a governmental shift in policy, one that prioritises the crucial transformation to renewables and greener energy across all industries. 

@SorchaHamilton

One Change is a weekly column about the changes – big and small – that we can all make in our daily lives for the good of the planet.

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