Is Streaming Music Harming The Environment?

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By Jenna Dreisenstock

As the society is scrambling to pick up the pieces, the climate change crisis is growing ever more terrifying in recent years. With erratic and devastating natural disasters becoming more frequent, with many losing their homes and lives without the ability to rebuild; if we continue the way we have been living, we are destined for self-destruction. It’s upsetting knowing how long the warning signs have presented themselves to us with little inaction, but all is not lost. By working collectively in changing the ways we engage with the planet and live our lives, there is still hope for us to turn things around.

However, this requires accepting some hard to swallow pills; such as a recent study presented by the University of Glasgow and University of Oslo, detailing our role as music consumers in climate change contribution. It’s no secret that with physical releases we contribute to the catastrophic consumption and subsequent pollution caused by plastic, yet as physical releases decrease – we are faced with a new challenge: the amount of electricity used for streaming services.

As physical consumption has decreased, unfortunately carbon emissions continue to skyrocket. In a research collaboration by the University of Glasgow and the University of Oslo, titled “The Cost of Music.” published on Monday April 8th 2019, researchers examined the correlation between the economic decline of recorded music, and the steady increase of carbon emissions. While the prices for music consumption has never been lower, the cost comes at a terrifying price – with carbon emissions soaring.

Dr. Kyle Devine, Associate Professor of Music at the University of Oslo has stated:

“From a plastic pollution perspective, the good news is that overall plastic production in the recording industry has diminished since the heyday of vinyl.

From a carbon emissions perspective, however, the transition towards streaming recorded music from internet-connected devices has resulted in significantly higher carbon emissions than at any previous point in the history of music.”

When examining the statistics throughout the years, the study concludes the following:

  • In 1977 the recording industry used 58 million kilograms of plastic.
  • In 1988 the industry used 56 million kilograms of plastic.
  • In 2000, with the peak of CD sales, the industry used a whopping 61 million kilograms of plastic.

However, as the popularity of streaming services has risen exponentially, by 2016 the industry was reported to be using substantially less plastic than before – 8 million kilograms of plastic. This is definitely a positive when it comes to environmental preservation, yet unfortunately this comes at a different cost.

Dr. Devine states:

“…a very different picture emerges when we think about the energy used to power online music listening. Storing and processing music online uses a tremendous amount of resources and energy – which a high impact on the environment.”

In Greenhouse House Gas equivalents (GHGs) storing and transmitting digital files has been estimated to use 200 to over 350 million kilograms in the US alone.

Dr. Matt Brennan, a Reader in Popular Music from the University of Glasgow, stated:

“The point of this research is not to tell consumers that they should not listen to music, but to gain an appreciation of the changing costs involved in our music consumption behaviour.

We see raising awareness of the findings as a first step towards developing alternatives, where music consumption can become both economically sustainable for makers while being environmentally sustainable for the planet.”

While we as a society work on finding the best possible solutions to the damage we have caused to the planet, it’s important for us to remember to live as ethically, and environmentally – conscious as possible. Without our active input, the future may look bleak; but there is still time for us to do something about it – it’s imperative for us to take action.