Ditching Discs For Downloads May Not Be As Eco-Friendly As We Think

Ditching Discs For Downloads May Not Be As Eco-Friendly As We Think

Well, this is unexpected. Even Captain Planet is baffled.

The Journal of Industrial Ecology (via Science Magazine) brings word that — in many cases — downloading video games actually harms the environment more than buying them on the ruthlessly manufactured ecological death frisbees we call discs. Crazy, right? Yeah, I’m sceptical too.

According to the researchers, the energy intensity of the Internet is the main culprit, followed (rather distantly) by consoles’ energy usage. Between download time and gameplay, consoles (or at least the PlayStation 3, which was used in the study) are responsible for more carbon emissions than the whole game disc production/delivery process — from factory to store to your living room.

Here’s how it all breaks down:

“For an average 8.80-GB game, carbon emissions varied depending on whether the game was downloaded (21.9 to 27.5 kg CO2-eq) or distributed on a BD disc game (20.8 kg CO2-eq). Gameplay accounted for the largest share of carbon emissions (19.5 kg CO2-eq) [and was equal regardless of distribution method].”

“Overall, the results indicate that the hypothesis — that downloading data will be more carbon efficient than distribution by disk — is not likely to have been correct in the case for PS3 console games sold within the EU since 2010 (except for games downloaded of less than 1.3 GB). Similar results can be expected for larger-than-average files in the United States, although by a smaller margin because carbon impacts of production and distribution of optical discs are estimated to be almost 3 times more than in the case of PS3 BDs within the EU.”

That last part, especially, is interesting. Downloading is only significantly worse for the environment in EU territories. In the United States disc production makes an ecological footprint that’s three times bigger, reducing the gap between the two by leaps and bounds.

Thing is, this study’s results are extremely, er, subject to change based on various conditions. For instance, if you drive all on your own to a store with the sole purpose of purchasing a single game, then total emissions for Blu-ray discs go way up, nearly matching downloading’s upper limits. “To put this in context,” the researchers wrote, “games of 5.40 to 19 GB purchased as the sole item during a shopping trip would have carbon emissions in the same range as that for a download (i.e., too close to call).”

Their approach to figuring out exactly how much energy the Internet’s inefficiency accounts for is also rooted in a lot of estimations, so it’s hardly rock solid. Different countries handle Internet energy usage differently as well.

On top of that, it’s worth noting that this study is based on data from 2010, and technology changes rapidly over time despite the fact that this data was only recently published. The researchers aren’t quite sure how things might have changed, if at all:

“Reducing the energy intensity of the Internet by half had a proportionate impact on carbon emissions of download. Although Weber and colleagues 2010 estimate that Internet energy efficiency is likely to double every 2 years, the historical rate of change may not continue.”

“In addition, the capacity of BD discs has quadrupled between 2006 and 2013 (a doubling time of 3.5 years), allowing for larger game sizes, for example, new PS4 titles average 16 GB (Eurogamer 2013). Production efficiency of disc production is also expected to have improved by approximately 5% to 10% per cent per year (Sony DADC 2010). Because of the uncertainty in these parameters, the future relationship between the carbon emissions of downloading games and that for producing and distributing BDs is difficult to predict with certainty.”

So basically, there is probably some validity in this research, but it’s super conditional. To be truly comprehensive we’d need similar experiments run a) this year, b) in a bunch of other locations, and c) under different conditions (e.g. driving vs walking to the store, different console settings, different consoles, etc). As is, this is interesting, but I mainly hope it encourages people to dig deeper into the topic, to emerge from its loamy depths and spurt dirt like some kind of underground cave-dwelling whale. Or, you know, a simile that actually makes sense.

You can read through the full paper for free here. Find anything else particularly noteworthy?


  • Not digital only dudes will have less point to argue BUT it is still quite convenient than buying from a brick and mortar store.

    • I dunno, it’s quicker for me to to the shop and get a game than it is to stay at home and download gigabytes upon gigabytes. Plus while I’m out I can get multiple other things done too, whereas if a download’s chewing up all your bandwidth you can’t do much else with the net.

      • Certainly quicker for me as well, provided I can find a store actually selling the game I’m after, and the price is comparable to the digital download, otherwise I’ll just download it.

      • If I download I can go to the store, do the other things, come back and play with it already installed :p

      • I’m on the NBN, and for me a 10GB game takes 15 minutes to download. In comparison, it’ll take me 10 minutes to get to my train station, another 10-15 before I’m in Town Hall, 10 minutes to grab the game, another 20-25 minutes before I’m home.

        However, I pass by an EBGames on the way home, and I’d gladly pick up a game from them if I want it, except when I built my PC three-four years ago I never bothered putting in a DVD Drive, and I’ve honestly not found the need to have one since

  • Important thing to take out of it all it that downloading data isn’t necessarily carbon emissions free, if that is your sole purpose for downloading (or even a contributing factor), then you need to reassess this.

  • Similarly surprising, driving an electric car in Victoria is often more carbon intensive than a petrol car simply because most Victorian power comes from coal.

    • Any links to a study on that? I’m skeptical, because the electricity was already being manufactured, meaning no net difference from the beginning.

      On top of that, the economy of scale you get from mass power generation is much more efficient than the economy of scale delivered from mass fuel production at a consumer level. Fuel is shipped in from overseas to one of only a few places. The largest is in NSW. Then it is worked on with considerably energy instensive machinery and then trucked interstate. That’s before it even gets delivered to the destination, which also uses electricity to run the pumps and the shop as a whole. Using petrol uses a crazy amount of coal-fired electricity before we factor in the massive cost of setting fossil fuels on fire in each car. I don’t see how cutting out the middleman could be worse.

    • You can put solar panels on your roof. And most power will be eco friendly within 10-20 years (I hope).

  • Kieren Mayers is presently Head of Environment and Technology Compliance at Sony Computer Entertainment Europe. The article is written in his private capacity as a researcher at INSEAD.

    It’s biased

    It doesnt take into account DLC, or day one patches

    Transport distance from Austria to the UK is all by road (representing an extreme case for continental Europe).

    It’s based on europe and doesn’t take into account any sort of transcontinental shipping (Not sure on #’s for US but it definitely gets imported via massive ships for AU).

    Doesn’t take into account faster internet speeds (more bandwidth\throughput for same power consumption).

    Some pretty massive oversights imo. And i only skimmed it.

  • Let’s not forget: Ebooks….I still prefer paper if only because in 100years someone else can read my copy of the book and in 100years the paperback hasn’t cost 1 additional carbon molecule/atom.

    Whereas: every time you turn on an ebook reader, it burns power that needs replenishing and if you’re in Australia, it’s likely dirty brown coal.
    That Ebook reader will die and you will replace it many times in 100years.
    The paperback is still perfectly readable in 100years, has locked up carbon in it’s pages and can theoretically be read by 10’s of thousands of people for no additional environmental cost.
    Not so with Ebook/readers.

    We expect far too much from the planet.

    • Downloading games uses more energy than making the discs in Europe. In America making discs has a far bigger carbon foot print.

      If you drive to the store just to get the game and nothing else than any reduction you’d have had over downloading the game is now gone.

      So it’s better for the environment if you buy your games on disc during your regularly scheduled shopping trips as long as you don’t do extra driving in comparison to downloading them.

  • Some of this depends on your download speeds. If your PC or console takes a third of a day downloading a game via drip-feed (Destiny example: 19GB (not including patches) + ADSL1 @ 800KBps = ~7 hours) then it just makes sense to buy a disc copy.

    Also it’s no cheaper digital than retail. Bleh.

  • Does this take the disc materials into account?
    Think about the chemicals, material resources, and ultimate landfill.

  • Well, this is interesting to say the least. I have to say that I was cynical of these findings to begin with.

    It all comes down to amounts. A single copy which is manufactured, shipped ect has a MUCH higher footprint than a downloaded game.
    At the same time, most of those processes are shared with hundreds, thousands or hundreds of thousands of other copies.

    It’s not until it leaves the store that its own individual footprint is really starting to accumulate.
    I can see how 1,000 copies printed in one second each, transported in one truck, sold in one store and driven home by 1,000 buyers leaves a lower carbon footprint than 1,000 machines running for 5 hours each while a game downloads.

    I suppose the silly conclusion is that you should factor in the building of the factories and stores when trying to calculate the carbon footprint of your trip to the shops to buy a game.

    The report also appears to make the assumption that only SOME of the games data is being read off a hard drive in the case of a bought physical copy. I’m not certain about the PS4 but I’m pretty sure the Xbone moves 99% of content to the Harddrive before you start playing. If that’s the case then one of the largest differentials between the two forms are negated.

  • I thought this was going to be about landfills being full of outdated capacities hardrives,thumbdrives,etc.

  • Its a bad study, It doesn’t factor in transport which is a major error. Not even close as most disc’s are made in a different country. Sounds like the study was done by a company that manufactures Disc’s. i am quite disappointed by this story being “news” waste of every ones time

  • The download “energy intensity” thing is a bit of a weird claim and I’m skeptical. More interesting is the cost of production claim about the console itself. I can definately see that.
    One of the interesting results that have come from carbon economics about cars is that the manufacture of a car uses more carbon emissions than the car will emit during its life of petrol guzzling. That means if every car on the planet was retired and replaced with a Tesla refueling on solar or nuclear , it’d mean MORE carbon than the status quo. What however these analysis miss is that the car is getting replaced anyway. We don’t see many old Toranas on the road anymore, despite being historically great cars. People will replace cars anyway, and thus its better they be replace with an electric or hybrid than another gas guzzling SUV.

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