Streaming Services: The Price for Being Plugged in 24/7
The unusual suspect: Streaming.
When we think about reducing our carbon footprint, we often think about using public transport instead of taking a flight, buying second hand products and choosing plant-based alternatives over meat products. We usually don’t consider skipping the next episode of our favourite series to fight climate change.
In 2020, due to increased video streaming, video conferencing, online gaming and social networking, global internet traffic actually increased by 40%. Are we currently underestimating the emissions of streaming videos, music and games? Find out where the environmental impact comes from and what can be done to reduce it.
The Invisible Climate Impact of the Internet
What makes evaluating the impact of streaming and internet usage difficult is the hidden complexity that many users are not aware of. Generally, there are 4 different layers, when it comes to assessing the environmental impact of browsing the internet.
The internet never forgets. In fact, it remembers most of what we do - search requests, web pages visited, emails typed. And all this data is saved and stored in servers, which can be regarded as the “home” of the internet - and they require electricity 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, non-stop. Servers are hosted in data centres, which use huge amounts of electricity - nearly 1% of global electricity, while also contributing to 0.3% of all global CO2 emissions. The powering of servers and cooling processes can be seen as the main culprits of emissions with regard to streaming services. While server consumption is mainly out of users’ hands, layer 3 and 4 aren’t: Watching a series for 60 minutes causes 90 grammes of CO2 if one uses a 3G mobile network, 13 grammes for LTE, 5 grammes for 5G and only 2 grammes if connected to Wi-Fi. Evidently, mobile networks are constantly improving, but using Wi-Fi can still cut user’s streaming emissions in half.
Last but not least, emissions also heavily depend on the device that is used for streaming. As a rule of the thumb - the smaller the screen, the lower the impact. A 50” TV requires almost three times as much energy as a notebook, which uses almost three times as much energy as a smartphone. Yet, it is important to know that almost 80% of lifetime emissions from smartphones are produced before they even leave the factory, which is why using devices for as long as possible has the biggest positive impact of layer 4.
Streaming Platforms and Their Emissions
The four layers explain the different sources of energy consumption and emissions, but how are those emissions actually produced when using a streaming service?Every time a user clicks play, data is transmitted within fractions of a second from a server farm to a more local storage point close to you, where it gets cached. There the data will be saved, so when streaming it another time, it doesn’t have to be transmitted all the way again. From there, it will reach the users' device depending on their connection, either through mobile data or Wi-Fi. The actual impact and amount of emissions depend largely on the streaming device, the connection, and the type of content (video, music...) that is streamed.
Not all streaming services are equally harmful to the environment. In 2017, Greenpeace published the study ‘clicking clean’, looking into the impact of our internet usage. The report compares companies and services based on their energy sources, transparency and other sustainability efforts. For the comparison, Greenpeace used directly provided information and publicly available information from every company, including corporate communications, public submissions to stakeholders, reporting bodies, media coverage, or published reports to rate their performance.
Now we want to look a bit more into the impact of streaming of music, videos, and gaming, and what reduction measures a selected number of companies in the industry are already taking.
Most of us choose to accompany our daily lives with music without considering the environmental impact of it. But did you know that a viral song can actually have a huge carbon footprint? A New Statesman data analysis showed that the hit single “Driver's Licence” by Olivia Rodrigo actually had a larger carbon footprint than flying from London to New York and back 4,000 times - which is comparable to the annual emissions of 500 people in the UK. And that was only in the first 10 months after the release.
Researchers from Glasgow University found that music streaming in 2016 actually accounted for a carbon footprint of between 200 million and 350 million kilogrammes of CO2 in the US alone. The energy needed for the storage and transmission of digital files was the biggest contributor to the emissions of music streaming.
To reduce their impact, a growing number of music platforms are implementing changes. In their 2019 sustainability report, Spotify announced an increase of renewable energy for their offices and data centres, a decrease of air travel and also including Scope 1, 2 and 3 in their analysis. Apple (iTunes) matches its constant growth with an equal or bigger supply of renewable energy. As industry leaders, this is pushing governments as well as their utility and IT sector vendors to supply renewable energy. In 2018, Apple announced that all their facilities, from data centres to Apple stores, are operating with renewable energy. And the company also claims to have reduced the carbon emissions from electricity of their data centres close to zero. Additionally, Apple plans to remove all plastic packaging by 2025 and become carbon neutral by 2030.
Music streaming is not that much of a culprit, compared to video. In 2020, 80% of mobile data traffic was due to video streaming.
As the most popular video streaming platform, YouTube also produces the most emissions. In 2016, the emissions of YouTube were about 10 million metric tonnes of CO2e - equal to those of a city as big as Glasgow. Given that the number of users has constantly grown over the years, almost doubling to 2.2 billion users since 2016, the carbon footprint is expected to be even higher these days. Yet, about 50% of that data usage could actually be avoided: Many people use YouTube as a platform to listen to music, while simultaneously playing the video in background. Since videos require more data than just audio, switching to audio-only streaming services would have a huge impact.
Another significant platform is Netflix - over one-third of internet traffic in North America is actually caused by Netflix alone, and the platform saw its viewing numbers soar during the pandemic. In the first half of 2021 Netflix gained 5.5 million new users - and this, combined with the increased demand for high quality resolutions, is causing streaming emissions to rise significantly. According to Netflix itself, their carbon footprint amounted to 1.1 million tonnes in 2020, with half of the emissions stemming from the production of movies and series.
As an example, the entire Breaking Bad series is 3,678 minutes long. Watching all seasons in the UK, streaming with a traditional broadband connection on a 50” 4K TV could cause 4.382 kg of CO2, depending on the energy consumption of the data centre. That is about as much as driving 44 km with a typical electric car in the UK, emitting 100g CO2 per kilometre.
It becomes evident that the carbon footprint of video streaming is not insignificant - and streaming platforms have already started to realise this and slowly began to take action. Youtube, for example, claims that every video streamed has zero carbon footprint from the Google data centres. As a part of Google, the company pursues a carbon-free energy generation and storage technologies, and plans to also “operate carbon free" by 2030. Netflix published their first public climate commitment in 2021 - and while they reduced their scope 1 and 2 emissions by more than 10%, their overall carbon footprint increased in 2021. In the future, Netflix aims to decarbonise film and TV production, while investing in high-quality carbon offset projects.
In 2020, there were 2.69 billion gamers around the world, contributing to the “internet pollution”. Since its release in 2015, the production of the Sony Playstation 4 has produced 8.9 billion kg CO2 - more than Jamaica’s total emissions were in 2017. And although streaming and cloud storage reduce the resources needed for discs and packaging on the one hand, cloud gaming actually requires 156% more energy compared to local gaming.
As always, we don't want to withhold good examples from you, so let’s have a look at what some companies in the gaming industry are already doing. Sony, for example, has already reduced 456 thousand tonnes of CO2 between 2016 and 2020 by using renewable energy, while also reducing their waste on Sony sites by 15% and launching the “One Blue Ocean” Project in 2019 to tackle our ocean plastic pollution. Microsoft contracted to remove 2.5 million tonnes of CO2 and to protect more than 17,000 acres of land in 2021 and 2022. They also reduced single-use plastics in their packaging by 18%.
But it is not only bigger players that are gradually starting to take action, smaller companies in the industry are also already reducing emissions. GameDuell, for example, has implemented various reduction measures all across its operations by switching to sustainable office materials and green energy, setting up an internal “Green Team”, or minimising its emissions related to employee commuting and business travel. Besides that, GameDuell also takes part in two different green initiatives: “Leaders for Climate Action” and “Playing for the Planet” to inspire other businesses to also reduce their emissions. Media and Games Invest (MGI) also goes beyond their company measures and partners with the Eden Reforestation Projects, planting a real tree for every digital tree. So far, over 200,000 trees have been planted.
How can we Improve the Streaming Carbon Footprint?
While increasing efficiency and renewable energy usage are great developments, there are more opportunities to decrease the carbon footprint of streaming services.
Implementing sustainable web design
Integrating sustainability into web design was a concept developed by Eli Bevis in 2007, but it has not become a common practice yet. The author of Designing for Sustainability recommends optimising images, following accessibility guidelines and web standards, and streamlining user experiences. If fewer clicks are needed, less data is transmitted, which reduces the overall carbon footprint. As video streaming is by far the biggest source of CO2, switching off autoplay is one simple step with a significant impact.
Improving energy consumption
The biggest portion of emissions and energy consumption is generated behind the screens of users. Streaming platforms need to invest in the efficiency of their data centres and choose renewable energy as their sole electricity provider. The trend can already be observed - according to research, data exchange is becoming approximately 20% more efficient each year, while the global renewable electricity capacity is forecasted to rise by more than 60% between 2020 and 2026.
Netflix, for example, aims to run on 100% renewable energy directly and offsets the portion that isn’t. Additionally, Netflix matches emissions by indirect electricity use with regional renewable energy certificates and carbon offsets. Indirect energy is the energy use of companies they work with, such as Amazon Web Services and Google Cloud.
The large differences of streaming emissions are partly due to location differences. While one hour of streaming in the UK emits 48 g of carbon, in France it is 10 g and in Sweden even only 3 g. These numbers show how varying the standards in Europe are - Sweden and France perform well due to their decarbonised and efficient electricity grid.
Encouraging users to go green
Ultimately, user behaviour can also change the environmental impact of streaming. Having videos, movies, and series play in the background without anyone actively watching, is likely one of the biggest, avoidable sources of greenhouse gas emissions. Preferably, streaming services are accessed with a Wi-Fi connection, instead of a mobile network, to halve data usage. And for enjoying your favourite songs without any delay, downloading is the greener option.
While there are a number of measures that streaming service providers can take to reduce their carbon footprint, it is important to remember that consumer behaviour has a strong influence on those emissions. Being mindful about streaming habits, choosing streaming services that integrate sustainability measures and overall powering your electronics with green energy will reduce the impact of streaming on the environment.