It seems intuitive enough that downloading music would be less carbon-intensive than buying a CD that has been transported in a truck and wrapped in multiple layers of plastic. Now a study (PDF) funded by Intel and Microsoft and performed by researchers at Carnegie Mellon University and Stanford University has confirmed it: Purchasing digital music cuts carbon emissions by 40% to 80% compared to buying CDs.
The study compares CDs shipped from online outlets like Amazon, CDs purchased at a store, albums downloaded and used solely on computers and MP3 players, and albums downloaded and burned to CDs, both with and without jewel cases. Even when consumers download an album, burn it onto a CD, and add a jewel case, carbon emissions are 40% less than with traditionally-purchased CDs.
Does this mean that illegal downloads are good for the world? Not exactly. The study only looked at purchase-for-download systems like the iTunes stores, but streaming music (like on Pandora or Last.fm) could have a significantly bigger carbon footprint. And file-sharing services like Bittorrent are also still up for debate. The researchers also neglected to look at the carbon impacts of CD players versus MP3 players. As anyone who still has their boombox from the ’80s knows, CD players tend to last longer than MP3 players.
In the end, the study makes it clear that record labels really have to move beyond the CD model–if not for monetary reasons, then for planetary ones.