By Alex Kimani
The use of streaming video has grown exponentially around the world, with pandemic-driven shelter-in-place mandates helping to supersize the industry. The live streaming industry recorded nearly 100% growth at the height of the pandemic, with viewers consuming 3.93 billion hours of content in April 2020 compared to 1.97 billion hours in April 2019. The rapid growth of these services has frequently been linked to increased energy use and carbon emissions from data centers, network infrastructure and user devices, with the lion’s share of the blame falling on video streaming king, Netflix Inc.(NASDAQ:NFLX).
You’ve probably heard rather outrageous claims such as watching 30 minutes of Netflix generates as much carbon emissions [1.6 kg of CO2] as driving almost 4 miles thrown around as facts by reputable sites such as the New York Post, CBC, DW, Yahoo, Gizmodo,BigThink and Phys.org. That means your Tiger King binge created as much carbon emissions as if you were to have driven over 1200 miles.
Yet, contrary to a slew of misleading media coverage, the climate impact of bingeing on Netflix and other video streaming platforms is actually relatively modest, though the internet overall is playing a significant role in killing our planet. So, it really depends who you want to blame, the chicken or the egg.
Growing impact of online video
Back in July 2019, the Shift Project, a French think tank, released a report titled the “Unsustainable and Growing Impact” of online video. The report claimed that video streaming was responsible for more than 300 million tonnes of CO2 (MtCO2) in 2018, roughly equivalent to the emissions profile of France. That implies that one hour of Netflix consumes ~6.1 kilowatt hours (kWh) of electricity, enough to drive a Tesla Model S more than 30km, boil a kettle once per day for nearly three months, or power an LED light bulb constantly for a month.
The study concluded by saying that digital technologies now emit 4% of greenhouse gas emissions (GHG) with the figure growing at a 9% annual clip. However, the Shift Project published a follow-up article last year to correct a bit/byte conversion error, which saw CO2 emissions released by watching half an hour of Netflix revised downward by a factor of 8 to 0.2kg from 1.6kg per half hour.
The revised figure is actually the same as that by a 2014 peer-reviewed study that estimated emissions of 0.4kgCO2 per hour.
However, that figure might still be too high.
With Netflix’s 182 million subscribers watching an average of two hours of video per day, the lower figure by the Shift Project implies that Netflix streaming consumes around 102 terawatt-hours (TWh) per year, about 227x larger than figures reported by Netflix (0.45TWh in 2019).
Shift Project’s exaggerated figures can be attributed to several factors.
First off, the thinktank has overestimated the bitrate by assuming a figure of 24 megabits per second (Mbps), equivalent to 10.8 gigabytes (GB) per hour. That’s 6x higher than the 4.1 Mbps or 1.9 GB/hr global average bitrate reported by Netflix in 2019. The transfer rate for high-definition video clocks in at 3 GB/hr while ultra-high definition (UHD) will guzzle up 7 GB/hr, quite a lot but considerably lower than Shift Project’s estimate.
Second, the Shift Project grossly overestimates the energy intensity of content delivery networks (CDNs) and data centers by a factor of ~35x relative to figures derived from 2019 Netflix electricity consumption data and also overestimates the energy intensity of data transmission networks by ~50x.
The energy efficiency of data centers and data transmission networks has actually been doubling every couple of years–implying the carbon footprint of data centers is a fraction of what it used to be 5 or 6 years ago.
Taken together, the IEA estimates that streaming a Netflix video consumes just 0.077 kWh of electricity per hour, about 80x less than the Shift Project’s original estimate.
The internet is killing the planet
The revelation means Netflix lovers can continue binge-watching freely without incurring feelings of shame and guilt over their role in damaging our beloved planet.
Unfortunately, their other online endeavors could still be doing plenty of damage.
Beyond the painfully obvious plight of a planet addicted to fossil fuels, climate change has another bogeyman that few–with the possible exception of Keanu Reeves–would be willing to give up.
Yet, it’s responsible for a huge chunk of our global greenhouse gas emissions.
In fact, by 2025, it could be responsible for a staggering 20% of global electricity consumption and up to 5.5 percent of all carbon emissions.
And you’re doing it right now.
That bogeyman is the Internet of Things (IoT) and the tsunami of data it must power.
Academics are challenging the notion that we can considerably reduce carbon emissions by increasing efficiency and cutting down on waste.
In fact, they warn that the internet explosion and increasing connectivity via the IoT and smart devices could increase global emissions by 3.5 percent by 2020 and up to 14 percent by 2040.
In an update to a 2016 peer-reviewed study, Swedish researcher Anders Andrae says the ICT industry’s power demand is likely to increase from 200-300 terawatt-hours (TWh) of electricity a year in 2017 to 1,200-3,000TWh by 2025.
Data centers alone could emit 1.9 gigatonnes (Gt) of carbon emissions, or 3.2 percent of the global total.
Let’s put that into perspective: Consider that the IEA reported that global electricity demand rose by 4 percent in 2019, the fastest pace since 2010. Our planet consumed a staggering 26,700 TWh of electricity in that year, with China gobbling up the lion’s share at 6,167 TWh, while the United States was the second largest consumer at 3,971TWh, and India third at 1,243TWh.
Coal supplied the biggest chunk of our electricity at 38%, while gas and hydro were second and third at 23% and 19%, respectively.
Only 3% of our electricity came from oil.
The percentage of electricity generation from oil has been in constant decline since 1973 when it stood at an all-time high of 22%. All other forms of power generation, including renewables, coal, gas and nuclear recorded growth with oil being the only decliner.
It’s not by coincidence that heightened electricity consumption has come at a time when the internet is growing at an unprecedented rate.
The Next Web reported that there were 4.4 billion internet users across the globe at the beginning of the year, a 9% year-over-year increase.
India recorded the biggest growth in internet users at 97.8 million, with China and the United States taking second and third slots with 50.7 million and 25.4 million additional users, respectively.
But it’s not just people chatting on Facebook and WhatsApp that’s putting paid plans to control emissions.
It’s far bigger than that.
The Internet of Things (IoT) is the network of smart devices such as home appliances and vehicles that contain an assortment of electronics, sensors, actuators, software and connectivity (usually the internet) which allows them to connect, interact and exchange data.
US researchers now expect internet power consumption to triple over the next five years as one billion more people in developing countries come online while IoT, robots, driverless cars, artificial intelligence and video surveillance grow exponentially in rich countries.
According to current estimates, the internet consumes ~3-5% of the world’s electricity output, which works out to 1,068TWh at the midpoint.
What’s disturbing is the sheer amount of greenhouse gases our ocean of connectivity will be spewing out.
The End Game?
As climate change becomes a formidable foe, and as negative attention shifts to fossil fuels on this battlefield, most forget about the internet–the very tool being used to organize action on climate change. Yet this very same tool is becoming one of our worst emitters of greenhouse gases. Every time we use data, we’re contributing to the destruction of the planet.
And in this case, it’s difficult to make oil the monster.
Instead, climate change activism, which goes down online in large part, is being powered most notably by coal, which accounts for nearly 40% of the electricity we consume globally.
In other words, depending on where you live, every time you get online the chances are, you’re killing the planet with another chunk of dirty coal.