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Rock & Roll Will Never Die (but it could be greener)

May 6, 2019
From coffee mugs and hybrid vehicles to vinyl records and even streaming music, being green is not always easy. But don't get discouraged, our sustainability writer suggests. Just keep striving to make things better.

These days there is a lot of conversation about carbon emissions and their effect on climate change. For the Democrats (and socialists) running for the 2020 presidential nomination, sustainability and “green” plans are an integral part of their campaign messages, and even more conservative politicians are now beginning to accept the science of climate change. 

Unfortunately, nearly every time a politician – not a scientist or engineer – offers a new solution to reducing greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, it is more ludicrous than the one before it. It almost seems that the more absurd the solution, like grounding all of our airplanes, the more popular with certain constituencies the idea becomes. 

Recently, I wrote about the progenitor of this election cycle’s climate change strategies, the Green New Deal, a plan that I thought was short on science and long on hyperbole. In the past, I’ve written extensively on climate change and – living in coastal South Florida where it’s real to everyone, including politicians of all stripes – sea level rise. I’ve also tackled embodied energy, one of the elephants in the room that keeps some climate scientists up at night. One of the examples I used in describing the embodied energy issue, was the pros and cons of replacing foam coffee cups with ceramic mugs. The ceramic mugs, of course, had a carbon penalty associated with their manufacture and transport, and being glazed, would not be environmentally-friendly when they ended up in the landfill. And after use, they require washing in hot water with soap…which also comes with a carbon penalty. With efforts to reduce, or even ban, single-use plastic and Styrofoam associated with food and beverage applications, the low-emission manufacture and environmentally-safe disposal of alternative products will be critical if we are really going to make a difference.

In addressing embodied energy, I also for the first time admitted that my hybrid car might not be any more sustainable than modern internal combustion vehicles. In a follow-up last December, I shared data suggesting that we had not yet solved the problems associated with the manufacture and disposal of electric/hybrid vehicle batteries, and that driving a non-fuel-efficient car for more than 30,000 miles would produce the same GHG emissions as an electric vehicle with a 30 kWh battery manufactured in China. With auto manufacturers significantly ramping up their production of electric vehicles – especially small SUVs – that is also a critical issue to be addressed.

And if that isn’t enough, now we learn that research conducted at the University of Glasgow and the University of Oslo has determined that, while the economic costs of recorded music have come down, its associated carbon emissions have significantly increased. How, do you ask, is this possible? 

We’ve replaced vinyl discs and plastic cassette tapes and CDs with online streaming! The cost part, of course, is intuitive. After adjusting for inflation, a vinyl album in 1977 (think Fleetwood Mac, or Meatloaf …younger readers, ask your parents) typically cost $28.55 in today’s dollars, compared to $16.66 for a cassette in 1988, $21.59 for a CD in 2000, and $11.11 for a download in 2013. The cost of streaming is now below $10 for almost anything. The good environmental news: during that same period, the volume of plastic used by the recording industry has fallen from nearly 128 million pounds (58 million kg) in 1977 to only 17 or 18 million pounds (8 million kg) two years ago. 

Unfortunately, the GHG emissions for the same period have increased from 140,000 metric tons to more than 350,000 metric tons just in the U.S. According to University of Oslo’s Prof. Kyle Devine, "Streaming recorded music from internet-connected devices has resulted in significantly higher carbon emissions that at any previous point in the history of music.” His explanation is the “tremendous amount of resources and energy” required to store and process those downloads. I believe it…Spotify alone just hit 100 million paying subscribers! 

So how long before some politician wants to ban music?

A regular contributor to HPAC Engineering and a member of its editorial advisory board, the author is a principal at Sustainable Performance Solutions LLC, a south Florida-based engineering firm focusing on energy and sustainability. For more, click here.

About the Author

Larry Clark

A member of HPAC Engineering’s Editorial Advisory Board, Lawrence (Larry) Clark, QCxP, GGP, LEED AP+, is principal of Sustainable Performance Solutions LLC, a South Florida-based engineering firm focused on energy and sustainability consulting. He has more than two dozen published articles on HVAC- and energy-related topics to his credit and frequently lectures on green-building best practices, central-energy-plant optimization, and demand-controlled ventilation.