How Sustainable are Online Streaming Services Really?

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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

Online streaming requires massive amounts of electricity(Photo: CC0 Public Domain / Unsplash - Jordan Harrison)
The transfer of large data files requires large 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?

CO2 Emissions from online video streaming how sustainable are they(Photo: CC0 Public Domain / Unsplash - Dawid Łabno)
In 2018, video streaming has emitted 300 million tons of carbon emissions.

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 300 million 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 percent of global CO2 emissions. This is equal to 20 percent of all greenhouse gas emissions caused by digital technologies.

The researchers also examined exactly how and what the world streams online:

  • 34 percent of online streaming stems from on-demand services: Sites such as Amazon Prime and Netflix were responsible for the equivalent of over 100 million tons of CO2 emissions – just as much as the entire country of Greece in the year 2017.
  • 27 percent 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 percent.
  • Another 18 percent 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.

Why Do We Watch So Many Online Videos?

Why do we watch so many online videos?(Photo: CC0 Public Domain / Unsplash - Martin Castro)
“Some videos we watch because we actually want to. Others we watch simply because the digital system forces us to.”

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 watch 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.

Check this out: Do I Even Need This?

Is Netflix Worse For The Environment Than a DVD?

How sustainable is streaming versus watching a DVD?(Photo: (L) CC0 Public Dominan / Unsplash - Clément M.; (R) CC0 Public Domain / Unsplash - Edgar Gomez)
Should we trade in our Netflix subscriptions for a Blockbuster rewards card? Let’s have a look at the numbers first.

If Netflix and the rest are causing such massive amounts of CO2 emissions, why don’t we all make the switch back to what we know and rent a DVD instead of stream? Nice thought. However, things aren’t that simple.

DVDs have their own downsides when it comes to the environment. On the one hand, DVD production requires resources. On the other, the discs are made of plastic, they come wrapped in a sturdy plastic case wrapped in another layer of plastic film. In addition to this, energy is required to package DVDs for sale and ship them to their sale destination – often a ways away from their producing country of origin. To top it all off, customers drive to the store to buy them. It sure all adds up.

In a 2014 study conducted at the Berkeley National Labratory and the McCormik School of Engineering, researchers attempted to track the amount of primary energy and greenhouse gas emissions associated with watching a DVD versus online video streaming. The result: Having a DVD sent to your home by mail uses approximately just as much energy as streaming. However, driving to a DVD rental outlet still resulted in greater energy use and carbon emissions.

For various factors such as energy efficiency, the study based their findings on mean values – the availability of alternative means of transportation such electric vehicles or public transportation was not considered. Mention of a number of additional notable contributing factors have also been omitted from the study, such as statistics concerning the individual use of resources for each respective method, i.e. streaming vs. DVD mail-order. Due to the currency and research scope, readers may want to take these findings with a grain of salt.

“Making the switch back to DVDs is not the solution,” says Maxime Efoui-Hess from the Shift Project. In his opinion, people should try to trade quantity for quality when it comes to streaming online videos. When it comes down to, we should consume fewer online videos and make the choices for the one we do watch count.

The Environmental Impact of Music Streaming Services: How Bad Are They?

How sustainable is online music streaming(Photo: CC0 Public Domain / Unsplash - NeONBRAND)
Music streaming has done well to help eliminate the industry’s plastic problem. However, there’s still work to be done.

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.

Read more: Go Plastic-Free: How to use Less in 7 Easy Steps

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 music industry alone. For the year 2016, predictions put this number somewhere between 440 – 771 million 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?

How sustainable is online streaming environmental impact of streaming videos(Photo: CC0 Public Domain / Unsplash - YTCount)
Online streaming services differ widely in their overall service sustainability ratings. Here are a couple you should watch out for.

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 percent “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.

Read more: Neither Nestlé nor Monsanto: This is the worst Company in the World

Eco-Friendly Streaming: Can We Reduce Emissions?

Sustainable online streaming tips solutions(Photo: CC0 Public Domain / Unsplash - Andres Jasso)
To what extent can we limit the environmental impact of online streaming? Here are some ideas.

“How we power our digital infrastructure is rapidly becoming critical to whether we will be able to arrest climate change in time,” says Greenpeace IT sector analyst Gary Cook. We don’t need to utterly eliminate digital technologies from our lives in order to protect the environment; we simply need to rethink the ways we use them.

Streaming is not bad thing in itself. Data transfer rates are becoming faster and more efficient. Processors are gaining in performance speeds and the materials we use to make many of the most common technological devices are gradually improving.

However, consumer demands are keeping pace: Not but a few years ago, HD videos at 720p resolution were widely considered standard. Today, viewers have become accustomed to 4K resolution (2160p) across the board. This paired with steadily increasing demand for music and video streaming leaves little time for advances in tech to pull ahead.

Researchers at the Shift Project see the streaming services responsible for reducing their own emissions. Here are their recommendations:

  • Streaming services need to adopt a new design: Functions such as autoplay and integrated videos which aim at maximizing content consumption must be rethought.
  • The project also sees hope in stricter national and international regulations.
  • In addition, companies and researchers alike need to find ways to operate servers more efficiently.

Scientists from the University of Glasgow also argue that greater sustainability could be achieved if more online streaming service providers operated their data centers with renewable energy.

How to Stream More Sustainably? 7 Green-Streaming Tips

Sustainable tips and tricks for online video movie series streaming(Photo: CC0 Public Domain / Unsplash - Sarah Dorweiler)
While streaming services are responsible for implementing sustainable solutions, there are also a couple “green streaming” practices each one us can adopt to limit our impact on the environment when watching our favorite shows.

In order to reduce the environmental impact of streaming, the streaming services themselves need to take the necessary steps to make their services more sustainable. However, you too can play a role in reducing the CO2 emissions resulting from online streaming. And in no way does this mean skipping out on the next season of The Walking Dead!

Here’s how to reduce your own carbon footprint when it comes to online streaming:

  • Reduce the video quality: 8K resolution is not a must – a majority of videos look just as great streamed at a reasonably lower resolution.
  • Swap Screens: Watch on your phone instead of your computer! These use far less energy.
  • Be picky when it comes to online content: If you really can’t decide or discover “the trailer was better than the movie”, just turn it off.
  • Mindfulness: Try to avoid surfing on your phone while streaming. This burns through heaps of data and distracts you from the story.
  • Digital Detox: Try not to spend every evening in front of a screen. Read a book for a switch, get outside and spend a night on the town with friends.
  • Less is more: Nobody needs to listen to music whenever they’re on their way somewhere. “Unplug” and you’ll notice you take in your surroundings in a completely different light. For those long treks, bring a good book with you for the bus or train ride home.
  • No YouTube music: This online streaming video service is often used as an unofficial music streaming service – with a couple notable downsides. There’ll always be a video playing in the background, so if you’re not watching this translated to a complete waste of data and energy.
How Sustainable are Online Streaming Services Really?(Photo: CC0 Public Domain / Unsplash - freestocks.org)
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This article was translated from German to English by Evan Binford. You can view the original here: Netflix, YouTube, Spotify: So klimaschädlich ist Streaming wirklich.

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