Streaming’s Environmental Footprint Is Not What It May Seem

November 16, 2020 – By Anna Gorman

Bored in their homes with nowhere to go, quarantiners worldwide turned to Netflix — earning the company an astonishing 15.77 million new subscribers between January and March of 2020 and increasing their subscriber base to more than 195 million. But when just one of those 195 million people clicks “play” on, say, their eighth episode of the Great British Baking Show, what happens? What is the cost?

At the Beeck Center for Social Impact + Innovation, as we strive to leverage technology and data for social change, it’s important we understand how the decisions we make regarding technology impact the environment we live in. When you watch a webinar or binge “The Mandalorian,” you activate a massive network of computer servers, allowing your personal computer to download the content bit-by-bit in real-time, aka streaming video. Each of these video streams comes with energy costs — the computer needs to charge, the Wi-Fi needs to connect to its network, and the bytes of data that comprise the stressed baker’s perfectly-iced cake need to travel from data centers to your computer. While your monthly bills may demonstrate some of the energy cost of streaming on your end, the costs accrued beyond the “play” icon are a little less obvious.

Illustration by the author.

At its core, every data center that allows a user to binge their favorite show is part of the internet’s “brain” — they store, process, and communicate data to personal devices across the globe. To provide these services, data centers require a significant amount of electricity, which can, in turn, translate to carbon emissions. The energy used to power these centers is converted to heat, which must then be removed from the center using cooling equipment that uses more electricity. Advancements in technology and transitions to renewable energy have allowed data centers to become increasingly energy efficient, offsetting much of the overall recent increase in web traffic. However, in many places worldwide data centers are still powered by electricity from fossil fuels, leading to questions over the environmental footprint of spending a quarantine day watching Netflix. While the energy usage of operating a data center can be significant, recent studies indicate that streaming yet another episode of the Great British Baking Show may not be as detrimental to the environment as previously thought. 

In July 2019, French think tank The Shift Project published a study on the “unsustainable and growing impact” of online streaming, claiming that the carbon emissions of streaming an hour-long show are equivalent to driving almost eight miles. This claim was repeated in a number of recent articles in reputable popular media like Reuters and BBC as recently as March 2020, and continues to influence media coverage. However, more recent fact-checks and new studies have cast doubt on this claim and the assumptions it rests upon, which have led to an over-exaggeration of streaming’s energy use. According to Carbon Brief, a science-based news website covering climate change developments, the flaws in the Shift Project’s assumptions “seriously exaggerate the electricity used by consuming video.” Carbon Brief claims the study overestimates bitrate, the amount of data transferred per second when streaming, assuming it to be six times higher than Netflix’s global average bitrate in 2019. It similarly overestimates the energy used in data transmission networks, leading to an overall exaggeration of the energy intensity of video streaming.

Additionally, the electricity use of data centers themselves have often been dramatically exaggerated, according to new research published in the academic journal Science in February 2020. Various mathematical models can be used to estimate data center energy uses, though it’s difficult to estimate electricity usage and carbon emissions because no official statistics are compiled at national or global levels, and not every data center discloses this information. The mathematical model implemented in a study can vastly influence conclusions, and variance in results leads to general confusion around data centers’ true electricity usage. The most recent literature favors a comprehensive “bottoms-up” approach to calculating data center energy uses, cautioning that the use of older, more simplistic mathematical models that do not take into account efficiency gains have led to gross overestimations, and thus have over-exaggerated the environmental threat of watching one’s favorite mindless -or prestige- television online. According to this new research, an hour spent on Netflix is not equivalent to driving eight miles — it is much closer to driving approximately four blocks.

This is not necessarily an all-clear for the future. Today, data centers consume approximately 1% of the world’s electricity, but demand for these centers is expected to grow. As more and more of our world becomes digital, it is increasingly likely that the efficiency gains of current technologies may not be able to offset the growing digital demand. Though there is always potential for technological improvement, there is similarly potential for growth in compute-intensive technologies (like artificial intelligence) to outpace the efficiency gains that have historically limited data centers’ electricity usage and carbon footprint. 

Everyone has an important role to play in minimizing the environmental impacts of data centers and video streaming. Governments can — and should — actively encourage investments in improved efficiency strategies, and as always, should encourage the decarbonization of energy supplies and the transition away from fossil fuels. Technology companies need to be held accountable to release their energy usage data to the public, and themselves should invest in more efficient technologies in favor of their bottom line and the greater health of the planet. Within the technology sector, the growing green technology movement encourages the development of environmentally-friendly innovations, particularly in regards to clean energy.

Social impact organizations like the Beeck Center, which exists to drive social change and focuses on using technology and data to do so, can play a role in watching the environmental impact of technology and online work. All online activities, including binge watching, attending Zoom meetings, and leveraging data for the public good, accrue energy costs. Moving into the future, we must be mindful of the environmental costs of the digital demand, related to both social impact and personal enjoyment. 

Nothing comes for free. All of our actions in the coming years can determine whether “Ready, set, bake!” is about cupcakes or the planet.

 

Anna Gorman is a student analyst at the Beeck Center and is majoring in Science, Technology and International Affairs at Georgetown University.

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