The Hidden Cost Of Music

By Chien Tat Low 22 December, 2020

Endlessly streaming Christmas songs? CWR's Dr. Low shows the cost of doing so & what you can do better for the climate

Streaming music has never been easier and while it is good news for plastic pollution it is bad news for carbon emissions with up to 350,000t CO2e in 2016, >2x that of the 1977 vinyl era
It's also bad news for water as streaming 2hrs HQ music/day/month = ~7bathubs of water; users on all music streaming platforms =6.46trn L of water (fill 23X High Island reservoir)
Need to be mindful as already the ICT sector's carbon emissions = 2% of global (same as aviation industry); small habit changes can make a difference - quality etc. - so, start this Christmas

The Christmas season always puts me in a good mood and I could “legitimately” loop my favourite Christmas song, “All I want for Christmas is you” (AIWFCIY) by Mariah Carey from my digital devices out loud at home – yup, my home-made boom box. And yes, I have two entire months to indulge in such a Christmassy vibe because we all know the Christmas season starts in November as soon as Halloween is over. This is when you can already see the shops putting up decorations and hear Christmas songs surging everywhere.

Streaming music has never been easier…

Streaming music has never been easier – be it for you commute, at work or even for sleeping and of course if you are having a party or celebrating a special occasion, like Christmas. Thanks to the internet, AIWFCIY has also become one of the most-streamed Christmas song of all time, with more than 143mn plays just in the 2018 Christmas season. Clearly, I’m not alone.

Compared to the physical copies of music that used to be how we listened to music (CDs etc.), digital music gives us flawless music quality without the plastic and packaging. So, surely it must be more environmentally friendly right? Let’s find out.

Plastic is doing better but carbon emissions from streaming >2x of the vinyl era in the US

From a plastic pollution perspective, digital music is more environmentally friendly than physical albums. A study from the University of Glasgow shows that the plastic used in the physical music production has dropped dramatically from 58,000 tonnes in 1977 (the US sales peak of the vinyl), to 8,000 tonnes by 2016 when downloading and streaming take over.

So, yes, it seems the plastic and packaging that comes with CDs and vinyls make them worse for the environment but as you can see from the graphic, it isn’t that simple when you also consider carbon emissions. Our popular music and video streaming services are polluting in other ways as they consume energy and can have a large carbon footprint, as every byte of data requires energy to generate and transfer from data centres to cell towers to our devices. You can see more on just how big a carbon footprint watching YouTube or Netflix has and the shocker footprint from the popular song “Despacito”, in our article here.

… but online music has resulted in significantly higher carbon emissions than ever before from the industry

1977: 140,000t CO2e

2016: 200-350,000t CO2e

Indeed, the study from the University of Glasgow also shows that “the transition towards streaming recorded music from internet-connected devices has resulted in significantly higher carbon emissions than at any previous point in the history of music.” The research shows the GHGs from recorded music were 140,000 tonnes in 1977 (vinyl era) in the US, 136,000 tonnes in 1988 (cassette era), and 157,000 tonnes in 2000 (CD era). By 2016, it is estimated to have been between 200,000 tonnes and more than 350,000 tonnes. And remember this is only in the US.

However, it is unclear that whether this study has taken into consideration of the delivery of physical albums to stores and households, which could be substantial from an energy and carbon emission perspective.

Global music streaming is on the rise = more water footprint; has COVID made it worse?

There are more “hidden tracks” to streaming music, it also requires water. Streaming music from data centres needs water to generate electricity to power them as well as to cool them. So just how much water are we talking about? Well, if you are like me, someone who used to stream the best quality as possible, you will use 0.11 gigabyte of data per hour just to listen to the songs. Spending an average of 2 hours each day streaming music for a month of  will use 6.74 gigabytes, which works out to 1,378 litres of water. is the  equivalent amount of water to almost 7 bathtubs.


Water footprint of streaming of Spotify’s Top 10 songs 2018 Xmas season = 459 Olympic swimming pools

According to Spotify, the top ten most streamed Christmas songs in 2018 reached more than 767mn plays globally. If each song has an average length of 4 minutes, the water footprint of these ten songs is equivalent to filling up 459 Olympic standard swimming pools. Remember, this is just the water footprint of ten songs in Christmas season (November-December) on Spotify, which has about 50mn tracks more in its platform. And Spotify only accounts for 1/3 of total paid subscribers of music streaming services.

In 2020, the number of music streaming subscribers in all streaming platforms including Apple Music and Amazon Music surged to 394mn as more people around the home stayed home due to the COVID-19.

Global subscribers surged to 394mn…partly due to COVID-19

Assuming average user spends 2 hours streaming music every day and each song has an average length of 4 minute, it can be extrapolated that the music streaming platforms contribute to at least 6.46trn L of water footprint in 2020. This is equivalent to the volume of water needed to fill the High Island Reservoir in Hong Kong nearly 23 times over.

Be mindful in the digital age – average is the key

The purpose of this article is not to discourage people to listen to the online music. But we can be more mindful of using digital technology these days, including personal digital devices – mobile phones and TVs.

ICT sector = >2% of GHGs

(same as aviation industry)

Although the carbon and water footprint of streaming one song seems trivial, the cumulative effect of internet use could be substantial. According to Nature, the information and communication technology eco-system as a whole – under a sweeping definition that encompasses personal digital devices, mobile-phone networks and televisions – accounts for more than 2% of global carbon emission. While this may not seem significant, it is the same as the aviation industry’s emission from fuel. Therefore it’s time to rethink and curb our “mindless” streaming and more broadly internet habits.

Small habit changes help, so start now!

“Average” is the key here. For example, we could download the songs that you would loop repeatedly instead of streaming and opt for average quality instead of top-quality. Streaming music with medium quality instead of top quality could cut the data usage by almost 40%, and you probably won’t even notice the difference. We might also need to reconsider  “unintentional” music streaming for the sake of “background noise”. Anything we can do to reduce carbon emission is important, no matter how small it is.

All my favourite songs like AIWFCIY are already stored locally in my phone so that I don’t spend unnecessary data to loop the same songs, and save my carbon and water footprint for the sake of Christmas.

Further Reading

  • 3 People-Green-Tech Chinese Initiatives – To win its War on Pollution, China is also turning to technology to engage the public. China Water Risk’s Dawn McGregor & Yuanchao Xu share three such technologies & their success so far
  • YouTube: The Dark Side Of Going Viral – We are already addicted to the internet, YouTube, Netflix, apps and still forecasts show major growth. China Water Risk’s Woody Chan unwraps the darkside of our runaway data use
  • Thirsty Clouds & Smartphones – Thought you were being more environmentally friendly by accessing emails online rather than printing them, think again! Check out how water thirsty & energy hungry our cloud addiction is
  • China’s Renewable Energy Quotas – China is releasing its first ever renewable energy quotas along with Renewable Energy Power Certificates to improve trading; see what these mean for provinces & renewable enterprises with China Water Risk’s Yuanchao Xu
  • Renewable Energy: Bigger Than You Think -Renewables surge as coal wanes but the bulk of the renewable energy boom is yet to come. CWR’s Thieriot on why this aggressive surge won’t be enough to solve the climate-energy nexus

More on Christmas 

  • Treasure8 – Deploying Nutrition For Humanity – Hear from Treasure8 Co-CEOs Derk Hendrikson & Timothy Childs on how they are taking food waste and upcycling it into nutritious food resources for people
  • Questions for A Bottled Water Tycoon – Nongfu Springs is China’s biggest bottled water comapny but a deep dive on its water strategy leaves CWR’s Yuanchao Xu with questions for its founder & water tycoon
  • Zoom University – Better for the environment? – CWR intern, Kaspar Ip, has had to enroll in “Zoom Univeristy” as he can’t fly due to COVID-19. With many students like him in HK, he does the math to see which option is better for the environment?
  • The Gift Of Physical Climate Risk Assessment – Climate risks are already here. Companies, investors and banks should treat themselves to a climate risk assessment, like 427’s, as their Natalie Preudhomme, Communications Director, shares
  • Climate Change – Never Too Late Too Start – From YOLO to deeply concerned, CWR’s Ronald Leung, the latest CWR team addition, shares how his work at CWR has woken him up to the imminent climate risks & how Hong Kongers must act now


Chien Tat Low
Author: Chien Tat Low
Low has extensive inter-disciplinary research experience, which although wide-ranging, focuses on identifying hotspots to facilitate better planning. At CWR, Low uses spatial modelling and statistical analysis as well as remote sensing, cartography, and geo-statistics to map and assess water risks. In addition, he helps manage CWR’s extensive network of contributors and partners. CWR is Low’s first foray outside academia and he hopes to apply his 12 years of scientific know-how toward enhancing the understanding of water risk in Asia, including spatial temporal variabilities of anthropogenic and natural factors on water resources. Previously, Low was a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Hong Kong where he devised methodologies to measure and benchmark the quality of urban life in an Asian context. As a certified GIS Professional, he also taught GIS and spatial analysis modules there. Low’s research on urban, human and environmental health is published in 11 prominent international peer-reviewed journals; he has also written a chapter in a book on managing environmental hazards. His PhD thesis on place effect on human well-being was prize-winning. Low is currently the reviewer editor for the journal “Frontiers in Environmental Informatics” and also reviews other international journals such as “Applied Geography”.
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