How Sustainable are Online Streaming Services Really?
So you’re up to speed again after binge-watching Stranger Things all on one weekend. But have you considered the environmental impact of your most recent streaming escapade? Online streaming sites such as Netflix are responsible for carbon emissions – and a shocking amount at that.
Data collected from a study conducted in 2017 found that 61 percent of young adults in the United States prefer online streaming services over normal television. This trend has vastly altered media consumption throughout the United States and shows no signs of letting up anytime soon.
New streaming platforms enter the market every year as current players expand their reach. For example, Netflix recently made public its third quarter numbers for 2019: The online streaming service has a total of 158 million subscribers worldwide.
Many may choose streaming over “conventional” media and home entertainment options primarily because they want to watch a certain show, which the streaming website broadcasts exclusively. For example, Netflix’s Stranger Things drew 64 million viewers in its initial four weeks alone.
Others may prefer streaming over DVDs and Blu-ray because it’s convenient and appears more “eco-friendly” – discs are made of plastic in the end. Streaming does away with all that. But are Netflix and Prime all that much better for the environment?
Streaming Services Require Massive Amounts of Electricity
When we stream movies, series or listen to music at home or on the go, our devices access data files saved on servers run by content providers – Spotify or Netflix, for example. Data storage, processing and transfer burns through a large amount of energy – more than you may think.
According to the United States Data Center Energy Usage Report published in 2016, data centers (servers, storage, network equipment, and infrastructure) consumed an estimated 70 billion kWh in 2014 – or approximately 1,8 percent of total U.S. electricity consumption. Researchers forecast steady yearly increases of around 5 percent and expect data center energy usage to top 73 billion kWh in 2020.
Although the energy required to support digital infrastructure doesn’t solely feed into supporting online streaming, it does make up a strikingly large proportion. Online streaming accounts for the bulk of the world’s internet traffic – up to approximately 60 percent. All-around video data transfer makes up 80 percent of the world’s traffic.
A study conducted in 2011 revealed that the 3.2 billion hours of video Americans streamed that year spent a whopping 25 petajoules of energy – the energy equivalent capable of powering 175,000 U.S. households for a year.
Video Streaming Services and CO2 Emissions: How Environmentally Unfriendly Are They?
From a quick google search for household hacks to reading an article on Utopia.org – everything we do on the internet requires energy. But exactly how much of this energy does online streaming require?
Researchers from the French think tank “Shift Project” have found online streaming energy usage to amass to startling amounts. According to their 2019 study, online streaming makes out to be an emissions catalyst on a grand scale. In 2018 alone, video streaming has amounted to the equivalent of 1.5 billion tons of carbon emissions. This amount is equal to the total yearly carbon emissions of the country of Spain.
Two other statistics bring the shocking extent of internet streaming emissions problem into perspective: Online streaming is responsible for one per cent of global CO2 emissions. This is equal to 20 per cent of all greenhouse gas emissions caused by digital technologies.
The researchers also examined exactly how and what the world streams online:
- 34 per cent of online streaming stems from on-demand services: Sites such as Amazon Prime and Netflix were responsible for the equivalent of over 1 billion tons of CO2 emissions – just as much as the entire country of Greece in the year 2017.
- 27 per cent of streaming comes from pornographic content: Watching porn accounted for 80 million tons of carbon emissions in 2018 – the same amount as was produced from all French households in the same year.
- Online platforms such as YouTube came in third place at 21 per cent.
- Another 18 per cent of videos were streamed on social media sites such as Facebook, Instagram and Snapchat.
The study conducted by the Shift Project provides a thorough overview of the energy usage resulting from streaming online videos. However, researchers in the field often question the accuracy of the data concerning energy consumption of this sort as exact numbers are difficult to compile.
Exactly how much energy online streaming platforms use or what their share in overall CO2 emissions is hard to say. The numbers tend to vary due to a number of different factors, e.g. how many people are streaming at one point in time or the amount of data transferred per request.1.
Why Do We Watch So Many Online Videos?
There are a number of different sources we turn to when we watch an online video as well as various ways we do this – some active, other passive. “Some videos we watch because we actually want to. Others we watch simply because the digital system forces us to,” states Maxime Efoui-Hess, one of the authors of the Shift Project study, in an interview with Utopia.
Websites such as Facebook automatically play videos in order to get our attention. Other sites such as YouTube utilize the “autoplay” function at the end of videos we’ve watched in order to retain our attention. This approach to providing users with online content entices us to watch videos we hadn’t set out to watch in the first place – and it often works – thus, perpetuating a continued massive transfer of data.
The Environmental Impact of Music Streaming Services: How Bad Are They?
Researchers at the Universities of Glasgow and Oslo analyzed the carbon footprint of music streaming sites and compared them to the environmental impact of cassettes, vinyl and CDs.
But let’s begin with the good news: Thanks to online music streaming, the music industry has drastically reduced its contribution to the growing problem of plastic waste. In the year 2000, the production of CDs worldwide required a grand total of 61,000 tons of plastic. By 2016, this number had been reduced to a mere 8,000 tons.
Nonetheless, researchers believe the total carbon emissions resulting from music consumption to have risen. In the United States, the year 2000 saw slightly over 346 million tons of carbon emissions from the music industry alone. For the year 2016, predictions put this number somewhere between 440 – 771 billion pounds. In this calculation, researchers took into account CO2 emissions resulting from online streaming as well as online downloads of albums and singles.
Does It Make a Difference Where I Stream?
In 2017, Greenpeace took a closer look at the energy use statistics of data centers at the some of the most notable online streaming services in their study titled “Clicking Clean“.
Among music streaming providers, iTunes faired particularly well. The music streaming service received an A-grade and was ranked at 83 percent along the Clean Energy Index – a benchmark measure calculated using a company’s actual total energy usage alongside the amount of renewable energy its sources. Spotify fell a bit short with the grade of D, Soundcloud even shorter with an F.
Among video streaming platforms and providers, YouTube came out ahead of its competitors. The video-sharing site used 56 per cent “Clean Energy” and received an A grade. Amazon Prime’s CO2 emissions evaluation resulted in the grade of C followed by Netflix with a D.