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The “Macro Story” In Your Ear

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For several years now, I have been yammering on about the ‘macro story’ – the role that Information and Communications Technology (ICT) plays in driving energy efficiency throughout the economy and society. And because greater energy efficiency typically is the easiest and cheapest way for individuals or organizations to reduce their climate footprint, ICT has a big role to play as part of the solution to the climate challenge. The last several years have seen the publication of studies by respected analysts of this effect, demonstrating that the “macro” impact of ICT is a much great part of the solution to climate than ICT’s “micro” effect (the energy it takes to power ICT devices). (See, for example, The Climate Group’s Smart 2020 Report, based on analysis by McKinsey -- http://www.theclimategroup.org/assets/resources/publications/Smart2020Report_lo_res.pdf )

But these studies themselves may be too “macro” in their perspective for the role of ICT to truly be appreciated by many people. What is required is a more granular examination of the positive role of ICT is some aspect of daily life that touches people in a more personal way. Well now we have just such an effort, in a study commissioned by Intel and Microsoft and conducted by scientists at Stanford and Carnegie Mellon that examined examined the energy and climate change impacts of different methods of delivering music to consumers [ http://download.intel.com/pressroom/pdf/CDsvsdownloadsrelease.pdf }.

This study examined six different methods of music delivery, from traditional retail sales of CDs to MP3 downloading without storage on a CD. The analysts – Christopher L. Weber and H. Scott Matthews of Carnegie Mellon and Jonathan G. Koomey of Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory and Stanford – found that purchasing musically digitally significantly reduces the energy and carbon dioxide emissions of music delivery compared to traditional retail delivery. The authors themselves sum up their conclusions thusly:

“We find that despite the increased energy and emissions associated with Internet data

flows, purchasing music digitally reduces the energy and carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions

associated with delivering music to customers by between 40 and 80% from the best-case

physical CD delivery, depending on whether a customer then burns the files to CD or not

(Figure ES-1). This reduction is due to the elimination of CDs, CD packaging, and the

physical delivery of CDs to the household. Based on our assumptions, online delivery is

clearly superior from an energy and CO2 perspective when compared to traditional CD


But, to be fair, the study also points out that there are scenarios where the energy and carbon footprint of traditional retail is nearly equivalent or very similar to that of downloaded delivery, specifically where the music customer walks to the music store or in the case of very large downloads that require significant computational work and thus consume greater amounts of energy.

However, in the end, the authors are very bullish about music downloading:

“However, as file sizes and Internet energy use are increasing, Internet energy efficiency is also increasing,

thus it is unlikely even in the case of large file transfers for digital downloads to use more

energy or produce more CO2 emissions than delivering music via CDs.”

This seems to be a realm where the “micro” story – the increasing energy efficiency of ICT devices and the network itself – is working hand-in-glove with the “macro” story to deliver altogether positive results for the environment.

Oops, perhaps I shouldn’t have just ordered those three Susan Tedeschi CDs from Amazon afterall…;-)