How Beethoven's Pastoral is harming the environment

Digital technologies are responsible for 4% of greenhouse gas emissions (GHGs), which is more than that emitted by civil aviation. A major contributor to digital GHGs are streaming services which operate from huge energy-hungry server farms. Global data center power consumption is more than 416 terawatts; this is about 3% of all electricity generated on the planet, much of which comes from polluting energy sources - see photo above. Mobile devices are our primary interface with digital technologies and the environmental impact of the production of these is jaw-dropping: it is estimated the annual production of iPhones alone produces 17.4 megatons of CO2, which is the same carbon impact as 3.7 million cars being driven for a year, or 285 million trees being planted and growing for 10 years.

Watching just 30 minutes of Netflix leads to emissions of 1.6 kilograms of carbon dioxide equivalent, which is the equivalent to driving 4 miles (6 kilometres). Video streaming accounts for 60% of total internet traffic and generates 1% of global GHGs - the same amount as generated in total by Spain. In the future GHGs from streaming services are likely to increase faster than any other source with the entry into the market of Disney, Apple, BBC and ITV.

This year the 250th anniversary of Beethoven's birth will be celebrated and laudable attempts are being made to position him as a proto-climate activist. But music streaming now accounts for 80% of the US market and is the dominant global music delivery platform. Although the percentage is lower for the classical market, it is certain that streaming will be the primary mode of Beethoven consumption in 2020. (It is conveniently overlooked in this era of climate change awareness that the switch from CD to streaming and downloads has had an adverse impact on GHGs. Calculating the plastic consumed by CD production and the electricity used to store and transmit digital audio files into GHGs shows that the music industry's production of GHGs has more than doubled since pre-digital 1977.)

Leading the music streaming charge is the de facto mouthpiece of the classical industry Norman Lebrecht. Having castigated touring orchestras for flying to China he is now promoting the German streaming service Idagio for four months by providing daily commentaries covering every single Beethoven opus. (Did someone mention that digital technologies produce more GHGs than civil aviation?) Yes, audio streams are less energy-hungry than video. But the classical industry sees real-time video streams of concerts on YouTube, Facebook and elsewhere as the future, and doubtless there will be an abundance of streamed Beethoven video in 2020. Back in 2016 it was calculated that YouTube viewing generated approximately 11 million tons of carbon dioxide equivalent; this is similar to the annual GHGs of a city the size of Frankfurt. (Which does provide a different perspective on Greta Thunberg hitching a ride with YouTubers for her 'zero-carbon' Atlantic crossing.)

One of the sources for this article is French think tank The Shift Project which advocates a shift to a post-carbon economy by practicing priority-led 'digital sobriety'. Of course music and video streaming will not stop and of course orchestras will not stop touring. But digital sobriety - the technological equivalent of the Buddhist Middle Way teaching of neither self-indulgence nor self-denial - is a powerful concept. To tackle the climate change crisis we must stop demonising easy targets such as air travel and diesel cars, and we need to understand the impact on the environment of everything we do - including writing and reading this digitally-enabled post. It would also help if people understood that for every complex problem there is a simple and quick solution that is wrong. And they should also realise that these quick and wrong solutions are usually peddled by social media influencers.

Photo via LA Times. New Overgrown Path posts are available via RSS/email by entering your email address in the right-hand sidebar. Any copyrighted material is included for critical analysis, and will be removed at the request of copyright owner(s).


David said…
My father-in-law used to say "It's a sad day when you don't learn something new". The size of the GHG production of global digital technologies was my lesson of the day. At 4% of the total, that is more than the entire GHG of Canada, which I have seen estimated at 3% of global GHG production. Thanks for reminding me of the "simple but wrong" solution. It seems to me that there are too few of the world's humans opting for the Middle Way.
Pliable said…
'Do you know how much energy is used by the data centres that power the internet? By the end of this decade, it could be 10% of global electricity usage, and cause five times the CO2 emissions of air travel. The more electricity they use, as more people come online and spend more time browsing, the more energy is required to cool them.

In the coming year, I expect you'll hear more and more about the case for limiting your web browsing. Not because it will save your addicted brain and addled eyes - but because it will supposedly save the planet' from BBC News -

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