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 Amazon.com 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)