Carbon Reduction Through Digital Delivery

The WSP study of Microsoft Office distribution concluded that "digital delivery reduced total tonnes of carbon emissions by 88%." Is this a realistic savings for digital delivery of movies and large software/game packages from most sellers and distributors?

Probably not, for two reasons. First, Microsoft is driving the energy efficiency of its data centers very aggressively to dramatically reduce the energy going to cooling and other supporting functions. Second, the WPS/Microsoft analysis is based on 10 million downloads, which allows for exceptionally good capacity utilization. Many infrastructures serving smaller organizations operate below these efficiency and utilization levels. This is a compelling argument for adoption of virtualization and other Green ICT tactics for enterprises that want to deliver meaningful carbon reduction benefits to their customers while reducing energy costs for themselves.

I did a couple of back-of-the envelope calculations and believe that 65%-70% carbon reduction is still possible from smaller vendors who have adopted Green ICT tactics. Even at these levels, a consumer who converts one purchase a month from physical delivery to digital delivery could reduce his/her emissions by over 60 kg of CO2 a year. A business that does this once a week could eliminate over 250 kg of CO2 annually.

Delivery of DVD-class data package
kg CO2  
Carbon footprint: physical delivery via brick & mortar retail 8.6  
Carbon footprint: digital delivery via highly-optimized download 1.0  
Carbon reduction through digital delivery 7.6 88%

Projected from WPS/Microsoft Paper

It is important to understand the role customer transportation plays in these analyses. WSP writes, "full package product materials-related emissions were the largest contributor until customer transportation (to and from the retail store) was included in the model." We came to a similar conclusion in our Carbon Footprint of a DVD analysis of a Fox Entertainment product. If you're that rare consumer who always rides his/her bicycle to your local big box stores, or a media facility that uses bicycle couriers, you will realize a smaller savings from digital delivery.

Finally, does replacing that local car trip with an air express shipment directly from the manufacturer to our home or business improve the carbon footprint of physical delivery? Apparently not. Trucking product in bulk to large retailers turns out to be more efficient, even when local customer transportation is factored in, than shipping individual DVDs by airplane.

(Thanks to @open4energy for reviewing drafts of this post.)

Update: 20090912:
See analysis of financial incentives to provider and purchaser based on this carbon footprint reduction.

Incentives for Digital Delivery

At either the 88% projected by the WPS study, or the more conservative 65%-70% you estimate, it is clear that there is a significant amount of energy (carbon reduction) to be saved if users will participate in digital delivery.

I wondered what incentives software companies were offering to encourage users to select this option?

At open4energy we posted an article looking at the user incentives for digital download and concluded that immediate access to the purchased product might be the most motivating reason.

But, it was discouraging to note that sellers neither offered any financial incentive to users for selecting a digital download, nor discussed the increased energy efficiency that this option would achieve.

In these tough economic times I can understand why sellers might see the savings they make as an opportunity to increase their profits, but I see no reason why they cannot add a message to encourage and educate users on the energy savings this will achieve?

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