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YouTube as a Music Playlist: the Steep Carbon Footprint of a Bad Habit

Launching YouTube to listen to music at the office or at home has become a reflex. With just a few clicks, we gain access to a wide variety of content, including pre-made playlists. However, the carbon footprint of this habit is concerning. It's time to reconsider how we consume music and explore more environmentally friendly musical alternatives.

Streaming, a Data-Intensive Consumption

When listening to music on YouTube, we consume a significant amount of data. This data is transmitted and stored in data centers, covering thousands of kilometers.

To function, these data factories require a substantial amount of energy: electrical power for the servers, air conditioning to cool them down, and so on.

According to a study by The Shift Project, streaming video accounts for 1% of global greenhouse gas emissions, equivalent to a country like Spain.

Unwatched Videos: Generating Impact without Purpose

Very often, music played on YouTube is listened to without watching the video. The video plays in the background without anyone watching it, while users go about their activities. However, considering that a video medium is always heavier than an audio medium, this habit leads to energy waste at various levels:

  • Draining smartphone batteries:
    • A lit screen consumes energy.
    • Using WiFi or 3G/4G/5G also consumes energy.
    • Processing video streams requires the use of hardware resources (processors, memory, etc.).
  • The volume of data exchanged is inevitably larger, as it includes not only the video but also comments and associated video thumbnails.

Leaving a light bulb on in an empty room seems absurd, doesn't it? The same goes for music: we can choose less energy-intensive alternatives to listen to our favorite tunes.

More Environmentally Friendly Alternatives

Fortunately, there are tips and alternatives that allow you to enjoy music while moderating your carbon footprint.

  • On YouTube Music: Disable the video associated with the audio
Introduction to YouTube Music

For YouTube enthusiasts, it is possible to use the YouTube Music application, which also offers tracks with or without videos.

Subscribers can easily switch from a "clips" mode to a "track" mode based on the content they want to access, without letting the video play unnecessarily.

YouTube Music, 1 month trial and then €10.99/month, or Premium version at €14.99/month, available online or through their app.

Article and links not sponsored
  • On YouTube and YouTube Music: Change settings for video playback to Wi-Fi only and lower resolution

You can choose to stream and display thumbnails only when using Wi-Fi. This practice is 3 times less energy-intensive than streaming videos with mobile data (4G/5G).

Optimizing the Use of YouTube Music
With the YouTube application: Settings > General settings > Playback in stream settings > Video quality preferences > For mobile and Wi-Fi, choose "data saver".
Configuring the YouTube Music App in Energy-Saving Mode
With the YouTube Music application: Settings > Playbacks and restrictions > Playback in streams

Easy to download and use, this open-source plugin available for free on Google Chrome allows you to disable YouTube videos and listen to audio only. This way, you can save 50% of your internet data.

This open-source application is available on Android. It offers several features to reduce the impact of using YouTube while consuming less data. Advertisements are removed, audio can be extracted without video, videos can be downloaded in the most suitable resolution for your use and are available offline.

Make sure to download it from the official website or from F-Droid. The version available on the PlayStore has been altered and contains a lot of ads.

  • Audio-only with music streaming apps

Other platforms are entirely dedicated to music streaming, such as Deezer, Spotify, or Apple Music. These are less energy-intensive alternatives to continuous video streaming on YouTube. To further reduce their impact, you can download your favorite playlists in advance using Wi-Fi for later offline listening.

Subscriptions available for ad-free listening starting at €10.99/month.

Acting Consciously to Reduce the Environmental Impact of Our Online Music

It's time to become aware of the environmental impact of our online activities, including when we listen to music.

Take, for example, the song "Despacito" by Luis Fonsi. It's the second most-watched video on YouTube (8.2 billion views) behind "Baby Shark" by Pingfong (with over 10 billion views). How many people have only listened to them without any interest in the video?

Of course, the technology industry has an important role to play in reducing this footprint by implementing more eco-friendly infrastructure and promoting sustainable practices. However, users also have a part to play. In the face of the climate emergency, it is necessary to act consciously regarding our music consumption.

[Cover Photo: Dylan McLeod]

Tiphaine Pabou
Tiphaine Pabou
Specialist in communication strategies and content creation for organizations with a positive impact. My passion for ecology informs my professional practice. I am interested in eco-communication and responsible digital practices, and I share tips for minimizing our carbon footprint.


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