What impact does video streaming have on the environment?
Ivan Radford | On 22, Apr 2022
This Earth Day, there are a number of nature documentaries that can help raise awareness of important environmental issues, from climate change and extinction to poaching and pollution. But as you settle down with David Attenborough’s dulcet tones to reflect on your own impact on the environment, there’s one question likely to be niggling at the back of your head: is video streaming hurting the planet? And what exactly is the carbon footprint of a box set?
It was a question asked a few years ago in a BBC Three documentary titled Dirty Streaming: The Internet’s Big Secret, which highlighted the very tangible presence that the “cloud” has on Earth, with gigantic data centres required to power the growing storage needs of an increasingly digital age – not just streaming, but economic infrastructures, transportation networks, retail and banking industries and more. With the number of VOD services growing – from Peacock to Paramount+ – are we doing a bad thing by booting up each day for a binge?
It’s a sobering thing to reflect on, as we live our lives surrounded by screens of all sizes to perform all manner of day-to-day functions. From broadband providers to batteries in our devices, we consume electricity at an astonishing rate.
According to the International Energy Agency, global internet traffic jumped by more than 40 per cent in 2020, as people increasingly relied on the web for networking, video calls and other communications during the Covid-19 pandemic, as well as keeping entertained by streaming TV shows, films and music plus playing online games. Since 2010, the number of internet users has doubled around the globe, as more people become connected to the worldwide web.
Here’s a dramatic graph:
Streaming’s carbon footprint
So where does video streaming fit in? There have been a number of scary headlines in recent years about the energy consumption of watching online vide, but the IEA points out that these rely on an incorrect report published by the Shift Project, a French thinktank, back in 2019. Calculating that streaming was responsible for more than 300 million tonnes of CO2 in 2018, it later corrected those figures, lowering the numbers from 3.2kg of CO2 per hour to 0.4kg per hour. Of that, roughly 70 per cent of the consumption is driven by the viewing device, while data transmission makes up roughly a quarter, with the remaining small chunk coming from those data centres dotted around the place.
Watching 30 minutes of Netflix, then, is estimated by the IEA to be about the same as driving 100 metres in a car – lower than the 4 miles some headlines have claimed, based on those 2019 figures. In terms of electricity alone, an hour of Netflix is estimated to consume about 0.8kWh, compared to roughly 0.113kWh to boil a litre of water in a kettle.
The Carbon Trust pegs the average European emissions for every hour of streaming video to be about 55gCO2e (carbon dioxide equivalent), the equivalent of driving about 300 metres. Netflix’s own estimate, meanwhile – as part of a project called DIMPACT led by the University of Bristol – is that one hour of streaming video on its platform in 2020 generated “well under 100gCO2e”, equivalent to driving a vehicle 400 metres. To put that in context, microwaving a bag of popcorn for four minutes is estimated to generate about 16gCO2e, according to the Carbon Trust.
Another factor to consider is the behaviour of streaming providers and their own carbon emissions. Netflix, for example, has pledged to achieve net zero greenhouse gas emissions by the end of 2022, by reducing its emissions, investing in carbon storage projects to offset emissions it can’t eliminate and also investing in ecosystem regeneration.
In 2020, the streaming firm’s carbon footprint was 1,100,000 metric tons, with half of that generated by the production of films and TV shows and the majority of the other half from corporate offices. Amazon Web Services and the Open Connect content delivery network to stream its service making up around 5 per cent.
A couple of years ago, Microsoft pledged to be carbon neutral by 2030, while Amazon has previously set a similar target for 2040.
The film and TV industry, on a wider level, is also working to decarbonise productions, by introducing such changes as energy-efficient lighting and ensuring that materials are properly recycled. One environmental organisation, called albert, has launched a “studio sustainability standard”, which is a voluntary standard for studio facilities to help industry players pinpoint improvements they can each make on their own productions, giving them a grade to benchmark their changes. If you watch out in the end credits of a film or TV show, you can see the albert logo for projects that have worked with the organisation.
Many tech companies, meanwhile, also invest in generating renewable electricity to match their consumption, thereby offsetting their reliance on energy-eating data centres. In 2019, Google purchased or generated 12 TWh of renewable electricity. In 2020, Apple did the same for 1.7 TWh and Facebook for 7 TWh. Offsetting, though, doesn’t erase the footprint that companies do create, and doesn’t mean that data centres are powered by renewable energy.
Things you can do
So, as well as holding companies and governments to account to meet their targets, what can you do about your own footprint?
There are a number of factors that you can control directly, such as the device you’re using to watch video – a large TV will use up more energy than, say, a small laptop, a table or a smartphone. But, as technology improves, energy-efficient TV displays are becoming more effective, so making sure you’re paying attention to the energy rating of your TV when purchasing one can help keep your carbon footprint low.
Lowering the quality of your stream, such as switching from 4K to SD, will require a lower bitrate, which will also reduce the amount of energy required, although that difference in carbon emissions is reportedly minimal.
Where you live, meanwhile, can also play a part, as different countries have different energy set-ups – in France, for example, a large volume of electricity comes from low-carbon sources.
The bigger picture
Non-profit think tank techUK highlighted to TechRadar recently that the prevalence of streaming is often part of a trend of moving away from other consumption models that are more carbon intensive, such as the production of physical media. The accessibility of streaming video, however, means that we consume more than we would have done via physical media, so these things have a way of balancing out.
Is video streaming hurting the planet? The environmental impact of streaming appears not to be as bad as you might have thought. But as we use the internet – and our various online-enabled devices – to a greater degree, it’s important to think about the impact your actions have on the planet, and be aware of the wider footprint of the digital age as a whole.
Perhaps the real long-term question is this: if we can improve the environmentally friendly technology and habits within our own homes, and the industry can shift towards better efficiency across productions and delivery, will that be enough to keep pace with global growth in internet and streaming usage?