Surprise! Digital Downloads Have Bigger Carbon Footprint Than Most Discs

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Surprise! Digital Downloads Have Bigger Carbon Footprint Than Most Discs

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Retail games were thought to have a bigger carbon footprint than digital downloads, but new research suggests that's not usually the case.

The games industry has been making a huge push towards digital distribution lately, and while it's not always stated, environmental issues are a factor. There's a significant carbon footprint attached to creating millions of DVD and Blu-ray discs and shipping them to retailers, so common sense says digital downloads would trim that somewhat. Now a study published in the Journal of Industrial Ecology confirms this is true... as long as your download size is below 1.3 gigabytes. As soon as you cross that threshold, which almost every modern game does, you risk leaving behind a bigger carbon footprint than if you'd just picked it up from a Gamestop.

For the purposes of this study, researchers focused on the footprints of PlayStation 3 titles released in the United Kingdom. Emissions were then calculated from gameplay, production, and distribution, while retail and digital delivery methods were compared.

From the results, researchers noticed two thresholds: Game files below 1.3 GB had lower emissions when downloaded instead of purchased on disc. However, game files over 4.5 GB had lower overall emissions when distributed via Blu-Ray. At that point, the energy expended to download a game surpasses the fraction of energy spent making and distributing discs in bulk. For context, the average PS3 game is 8.8GB.

Any game sized between these thresholds carries too much uncertainty to determine how energy use is allocated, but this may not be especially significant. Only one of 2010's top ten selling games fell into that range (Need for Speed: Hot Pursuit at 4.5 GB) while the rest fell outside of it. Considering that increasing file sizes continue to be an upward trend, we probably won't see top selling games back in that range anytime soon.

In fairness, the researchers admit there are a lot of factors to consider before applying these results broadly. For example, the life cycle of used games simply cannot be tracked, so the study had to limit itself to individual users. It also doesn't account for energy sources of non-UK nations; some are turning towards sustainable energy while others, like the US, still rely heavily on coal sources. That being said, it's probably worth knowing that a tipping point for downloaded games exists, especially as the digital distribution machine moves forward.

Source: Journal of Industrial Ecology

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That is a surprise indeed. I never figured that streaming complete games would do that kind of environmental effect.

Maybe be a good idea in a few years to bring back mini disks

Irrelevant when you consider coal, vehicles that run on gas and whatnot. Let's do away with those first.

Ok... the difference is anywhere from .59 kg CO2/kWh less per game to 5 kg CO2/kWh more per game.

Does anyone know if these numbers matter? Are these significant? As far as I can tell, a 100 Watt bulb run 4 hours a day for a year and hits 100 kg CO2/kWh. So if a 40 GB game is 3 more kg CO2/kWh, what does that mean in any scheme? Even at the 5 kg rate I'd have to download 20 LARGE games in a year just to hit the one bulb mark for that year.

I... just don't think this is a problem and I'm the asshole that replaced all my bulbs with the 13 Watt replacements.

Huh. That's... Surprising.

Not going to go change my buying habits anytime soon but it's a reminder of how many factors get thrown into every decision we make.

Someone please explain how these numbers make any sort of sense. I find it almost impossible to believe that downloading even, say, a 10 GB file could have anywhere near the carbon footprint of creating a disk, burning it (which seems like it would take more energy than downloading all by itself, since you're basically "downloading" the file to a disk either way), and transporting it to the end user (at which point it again gets "downloaded" to the machine).

I must be missing something, but I'm not sure what. Transmission costs? Hosting costs? Could disks be stamped somehow rather than burned?

Huh, that's unexpected, to say the least.

Guess I'll have to take some responsibility and get physical copies instead of being an asshole who hates mother nature.

I still don't understand how on Earth that makes sense, though. I'll have to do some research and see if there's any more information on the subject.

Depends how crap your internet connection is. Your PC/console could be running and burning energy all day just to download one game.

I guess that could factor into it....

Doesn't matter. Carbon emissions can be offset. People having mountains of plastic cases in their homes requires the continuous manufacturing of new materials.

That's cool, I like my physical media anyways.

The author of this research works for Sony. Probably why the article doesn't mention all the Polypropylene packaging needs to be recycled, which costs energy. Not to mention the source of energy is very important when talking about the environment. What if the digital distribution center is running on mostly renewable sources? It's an increasingly common use-case for large data centers, as energy costs tend to eat up the budget. The scope is just far too narrow in this research to provide any real insight.

The_Great_Galendo:
Someone please explain how these numbers make any sort of sense.

Okay.

When you're downloading anything, you have to consider just how much traffic you're generating. The data has to go through several relays to get from the server to you. Now, the data itself won't be very costly, however, the demand that you (and your fellow gamers) are creating by downloading the games requires the internet relays to become bigger and bigger (at least in computing power).

As a sort of comparison, a communications engineer told me last year, that simply typing a single word into Google, and the resulting, will cost enought energy to bring a cup of water to a boil. (As this was something he told me, I haven't got a source, sorry)

The_Great_Galendo:
Someone please explain how these numbers make any sort of sense. I find it almost impossible to believe that downloading even, say, a 10 GB file could have anywhere near the carbon footprint of creating a disk, burning it (which seems like it would take more energy than downloading all by itself, since you're basically "downloading" the file to a disk either way), and transporting it to the end user (at which point it again gets "downloaded" to the machine).

I must be missing something, but I'm not sure what. Transmission costs? Hosting costs? Could disks be stamped somehow rather than burned?

Simply put, the amount of additional time you leave a console on when downloading a game(+ running servers servers and such), puts out more carbon then burning a game to a disk and delivering it to a retail store.

halethrain:
The author of this research works for Sony.

Which author? You mean Amanda Webb? Because her biography says she's with the University of Surrey and studying energy use at Sony, not that she's an employee. Plus she's not the head writer on this study.

Or did you mean someone else?

I can't agree with the study because it sets the upper bound electrical usages for a single Gigabyte at 1 kWh for the server room. That's dedicating an entire server to just one single solitary download. At least they set the lower bound at 0.

They also set the minimum energy cost of my router at 0.3 kWh or 300 Wh. I can get 1 Gigabyte in 15 minutes as congestion permits. Do they think that my router takes 1200 watts? Even my PS3 might only be 200 watts when it's really working, but just doing an idle background download it's going to be a lot lower, and lower still if I had a slim.

Something's not right with their numbers.

Interesting indeed.
But how do they split it up in to single games?
And was electricity used by the store/warehouse and the ride to the store or UPS delivery taken in account? (again how)

ilupir:

The_Great_Galendo:
Someone please explain how these numbers make any sort of sense.

Okay.

When you're downloading anything, you have to consider just how much traffic you're generating. The data has to go through several relays to get from the server to you. Now, the data itself won't be very costly, however, the demand that you (and your fellow gamers) are creating by downloading the games requires the internet relays to become bigger and bigger (at least in computing power).

As a sort of comparison, a communications engineer told me last year, that simply typing a single word into Google, and the resulting, will cost enought energy to bring a cup of water to a boil. (As this was something he told me, I haven't got a source, sorry)

Me thinks he was talking crap, not a little crap mind you, like supper mega crap.

They actually give the upper and lower bounds of energy use transmitting data.
it's .5-1.5 KWH/GB
KWH is equal to 3,600,000 joules and it takes 334,400 joules to bring a cup of water to boil from freezing.
So unless typing a word into Google takes up more room then most term papers he is wrong.

medv4380:
I can't agree with the study because it sets the upper bound electrical usages for a single Gigabyte at 1 kWh for the server room. That's dedicating an entire server to just one single solitary download. At least they set the lower bound at 0.

They also set the minimum energy cost of my router at 0.3 kWh or 300 Wh. I can get 1 Gigabyte in 15 minutes as congestion permits. Do they think that my router takes 1200 watts? Even my PS3 might only be 200 watts when it's really working, but just doing an idle background download it's going to be a lot lower, and lower still if I had a slim.

Something's not right with their numbers.

It's your understanding of the units.

A KWH is a measurement of energy not of work. So convert it to joules if you are having a hard time understanding it.
A KWH is 3.6 Megajoules

Now if we switched as many areas as possible to nuclear like we should have done decades ago, and France has already done, this wouldn't be an issue.

Interesting. It's fun if not at all useful. The only sure fire way to reduce your carbon footprint is to stop using technology at all. Last I checked, the Amish don't have a particularly large carbon footprint. But interestingly, there is no way to have no carbon footprint.

direkiller:

medv4380:
I can't agree with the study because it sets the upper bound electrical usages for a single Gigabyte at 1 kWh for the server room. That's dedicating an entire server to just one single solitary download. At least they set the lower bound at 0.

They also set the minimum energy cost of my router at 0.3 kWh or 300 Wh. I can get 1 Gigabyte in 15 minutes as congestion permits. Do they think that my router takes 1200 watts? Even my PS3 might only be 200 watts when it's really working, but just doing an idle background download it's going to be a lot lower, and lower still if I had a slim.

Something's not right with their numbers.

It's your understanding of the units.

A KWH is a measurement of energy not of work. So convert it to joules if you are having a hard time understanding it.
A KWH is 3.6 Megajoules

How about breaking it down to what it is. 0.3 kWh is a 300 watt device plugged in for 1 hour.

It breaks down to
X * 15 mins = 0.3 kWh
X would be a 1200 watt device.

My router doesn't eat that much power, but that's what their numbers are saying.

My understanding of the units is fine. Your "joules" just muddies the water.

halethrain:
The author of this research works for Sony.

The facts covered by Fanghawk aside, I have trouble believing this is at issue since Sony is heavily pushing their own digital services.

The_Great_Galendo:
[...] Could disks be stamped somehow rather than burned?

Yes. This is how discs are mass-produced: They literally make a die and stamp the raw plastic, similar to how coins are made.

Adam Jensen:
Irrelevant when you consider coal, vehicles that run on gas and whatnot. Let's do away with those first.

Nag, just use peanut oil and chip fat with diesel engines :P

Fanghawk:

halethrain:
The author of this research works for Sony.

Which author? You mean Amanda Webb? Because her biography says she's with the University of Surrey and studying energy use at Sony, not that she's an employee. Plus she's not the head writer on this study.

Or did you mean someone else?

Kieren Mayers: Dr. Kieren Mayers is Head of Technical Compliance at Sony Computer Entertainment Europe, which
markets, distributes, and sells PlayStation(R) products and software across 110 countries worldwide,
and is responsible for environmental strategy and management as well as other compliance issues
within the company. He is also maintains an academic interest as an Executive in Residence at
INSEAD University in France and has published a number of articles on environmental subjects.
Kieren has over 15 year's experience working within the electronics, gaming, and recycling sectors.

I don't like the statement that nearly all modern games are > 1.3 GB. Indie games are usually at the 500 - 990 MB range in my experience. It's usually only the bigger indie titles that exceed that size.

I travel a lot so a lot of my gaming happens on a netbook, which means I'm restriced to much simpler and smaller games like FTL, Spacechem, and Dwarf Fortress, all of which are much less than 1.3 GB. You have to take the indie market into account, given that many of the extremely popular independent games are quite small in terms of file size and it would be incredibly wasteful to put that all on discs.

halethrain:

Fanghawk:

halethrain:
The author of this research works for Sony.

Which author? You mean Amanda Webb? Because her biography says she's with the University of Surrey and studying energy use at Sony, not that she's an employee. Plus she's not the head writer on this study.

Or did you mean someone else?

Kieren Mayers: Dr. Kieren Mayers is Head of Technical Compliance at Sony Computer Entertainment Europe, which
markets, distributes, and sells PlayStation(R) products and software across 110 countries worldwide,
and is responsible for environmental strategy and management as well as other compliance issues
within the company. He is also maintains an academic interest as an Executive in Residence at
INSEAD University in France and has published a number of articles on environmental subjects.
Kieren has over 15 year's experience working within the electronics, gaming, and recycling sectors.

Post-Quinnpocalypse sleuthing! Great job.

Now, what possible motives could Sony have for wanting more disks? Don't they cut out the gamestop middleman by doing direct downloads?

Adam Jensen:
Irrelevant when you consider coal, vehicles that run on gas and whatnot. Let's do away with those first.

Good luck with that. It'd be even harder than getting the gaming industry to revert to mostly physical media.

1. We are looking at energy, not material costs of games.
2. Over 90% of energy is from gameplay. Not distribution. Distribution only makes a small difference in energy consumption.
3. What was evaluated was the energy to read and write and transport the discs. Not the shipping of said discs to the plant or the production of the discs.

I have many questions on this as I really take issue with these numbers.
First off what is the cost of transportation?
What about the cost of having someone drive to go buy that disk?
The cost of having it sit in a store the cost of heating and powering that store over a year?
The Cost of having to make all those cases discs and paper sleeves for them? I this these numbers are way off and this was just scratching the surface of the costs here. \

Here is an article showing the cost per gig at about 3.8 cents to go around the world and that is with the author assuming a 400% markup by the ISP. With that even a 50Gb game would be 2 bucks to download. I really doubt anyone could mass produce and get a game into thousands of stores for that price.

Please also note I'm referring to cost as behind every price of an item is a cost in CO2 as energy costs money and energy produces CO2.

Houseman:

halethrain:

Fanghawk:

Which author? You mean Amanda Webb? Because her biography says she's with the University of Surrey and studying energy use at Sony, not that she's an employee. Plus she's not the head writer on this study.

Or did you mean someone else?

Kieren Mayers: Dr. Kieren Mayers is Head of Technical Compliance at Sony Computer Entertainment Europe, which
markets, distributes, and sells PlayStation(R) products and software across 110 countries worldwide,
and is responsible for environmental strategy and management as well as other compliance issues
within the company. He is also maintains an academic interest as an Executive in Residence at
INSEAD University in France and has published a number of articles on environmental subjects.
Kieren has over 15 year's experience working within the electronics, gaming, and recycling sectors.

Post-Quinnpocalypse sleuthing! Great job.

Now, what possible motives could Sony have for wanting more disks? Don't they cut out the gamestop middleman by doing direct downloads?

Its far more likely they carried out this study because of the way rules and regulations with respect to carbon footprints for major corporations are put into place. Consequently its somewhat pertinent for them to be able to accurately report how much their company is putting out and figure out ways to reduce it and prove that reduction. They don't "want more discs"; what they want is to know which way is best so they can remain within regulations so they don't get fined.

Not everything has to be a conspiracy. These kinds of industry collaborations are fairly common and there are several in my own research department at any particular time.

Lightspeaker:

Its far more likely they carried out this study because of the way rules and regulations with respect to carbon footprints for major corporations are put into place. Consequently its somewhat pertinent for them to be able to accurately report how much their company is putting out and figure out ways to reduce it and prove that reduction. They don't "want more discs"; what they want is to know which way is best so they can remain within regulations so they don't get fined.

Not everything has to be a conspiracy. These kinds of industry collaborations are fairly common and there are several in my own research department at any particular time.

I dunno, I'm not inclined to trust a company accurately reporting their own carbon footprint, when it's in their best financial interest for this carbon footprint to be as low as possible. If this was a 3rd party inspection or something, that'd be great. "Show me the carfax" and all that.

With the way consoles makers are treating their online games sales, more and more people will trend towards physical media bought from online retailers not directly out to suck their wallets dry. The best deals are either on Steam, GoG, physical copies online or rarely in local stores. (Two of those exclude consoles, and the other two require driving at least from the warehouse/plant to the store or your home. So choices are limited on how to not impact the environment.) Then more energy will be spent on the Fedex/UPS trucks driving to even more doors per day. (It would be great if some nations' mail services got interested in partnering with stores like Amazon to make cheap deliveries for small packages like games and movies. They're already at you mailbox virtually every day.) So, even if this was true, it won't last for long.

I do wonder, though, how many server farms are utilizing the excess heat to warm the buildings in the winter? The theater I used to work at had all the projector exhausts shoot straight up through the roof into the great outdoors[1] when they could have dampers to divert the hot air back into the building when it's cold out. (The temps in the huge projection booths we had went up by almost 20 degrees F when a roof fan failed and we put "cheater" fans (duct boosters you can buy at the hardware store for $30) on just one projector.) I know servers need to stay nice and cool, but an HVAC engineer could design a system to divert that wasted energy and turn on a local ac unit if things got too hot just around the servers. It would help the situation in the article, and maybe the info in the article is taking into account any installation that does this.

[1] The only reason I can think of why they'd do that is the ozone that's produced when the lamp ignites, but that amount is still very negligible. And, that issue isn't present in computers.

I think this falls apart if we start talking about sales in the US. They're effectively saying that there is no cost for driving to the store and driving back. That price comes per disk, no bulk rates apply.

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