Is Music Streaming a Climate Killer?

The carbon footprint of digitalisation is just three per cent. Considering its huge potential for saving CO2, that's not much. Or is it? A new study by the University of Zurich and the GDI investigates the effects of digital products and services on climate change. The study shows where providers and consumers can take action to avoid greenhouse gas emissions.
5 December, 2022 by
Is Music Streaming a Climate Killer?
GDI Gottlieb Duttweiler Institute

Digital products and services are an essential part of all areas of life and have gained a lot of popularity during the pandemic. Video conferencing, home delivery and streaming of films and music have conquered Swiss households and replaced many inefficient products and services. But does this substitution lead to an overall reduction in greenhouse gases, or do rebound effects cancel out the progress? At what point does reading a newspaper on a reader become economically efficient, and how climate-friendly is the home office really?

A new meta-study by the University of Zurich and the Gottlieb Duttweiler Institute, commissioned by the SWICO and Swisscleantech industry associations, now comprehensively and systematically analyses the positive and negative climate effects of eleven selected digital products and services for the first time. With regard to the necessary measures, the products can be divided into three categories:

  • For products such as video and music streaming, the main issue is to make them available in the most greenhouse gas (GHG)-efficient way possible while avoiding a massive increase in consumption.
  • In the case of e-book readers and online newspapers, providers and users should ensure that few new devices are (or have to be) purchased for consumption, as their production is material- and energy-intensive.
  • Mobility-as-a-service, route planning and navigation, home office, virtual meetings/conferences, online mail order, food delivery services and also precision agriculture offer a high theoretical potential to reduce GHG emissions from transport, the building sector and agriculture. However, it is questionable to what extent the potential is actually realised because these products are also used complementarily to conventional alternatives and can thus even lead to additional consumption. Therefore, it is important to ensure that the use of the digital product actually leads to an avoidance of GHG-intensive, conventional alternatives through appropriate product design and effective regulations.

Looking at the increasing use of digital products from an overall societal perspective, it can be seen that global GHG emissions continue to increase despite digitalisation. This is explained in the literature, for example, by the fact that it is precisely the digitally enabled efficiency gains that lead to rebound effects: Compared to their analogue predecessors, digital products are faster, more convenient, easier to access and always available. Moreover, they are often free, or at least cheaper, or they are offered with cheap flat rates. Thus, consumption increases and the avoided emissions are compensated or even overcompensated in total. Therefore, measures aimed at putting digitalisation at the service of climate protection cannot start at the product level alone but must go hand in hand with the design of the politically defined framework conditions that create incentives in the direction of climate protection.

Learn more about the connection between digitalisation and emissions in the study "Auswirkungen digitaler Produkte auf den Klimaschutz". Download now free of charge! (German language only)!

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