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How Green Is That Download?

Over at Earth2Tech, Katie Fehrenbacher passes along a new study showing that—surprise!—downloading music online tends to be more eco-friendly than buying physical CDs. At first glance, this looks like one of those so-obvious-why'd-they-bother papers, on par with that recent study discovering that toddlers get cranky when they miss naptime. But in fairness, this one does pile on a few twists:

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.

Nuances aside, this is one reason why those countless articles lamenting the Internet's swelling energy needs deserve a fat caveat. Yes, Google and other sites keep frantically amassing server capacity, and all those servers do gobble up plenty of power. But it's far more efficient to conduct a lot of our business online. E-commerce adds less carbon to the air than having everyone drive to the store (not to mention that those big warehouses use less energy per square foot than smaller in-person stores do). Video teleconferencing beats freeway commuting. And so on. I haven't seen any solid data on how big a role this digital "dematerialization" could play in tamping down the world's energy use going forward, but presumably there's vast untapped potential here.

(Flickr photo credit: tanais)