Why the carbon footprint of streaming isn’t as bad as we thought

People stream a LOT of TV and movies these days. What’s the environmental impact of all of it? According to a new tool, not as much as we thought.

Combatting the effects of climate change is a growing worldwide crusade, and many people are trying to ensure that they keep as low a carbon footprint as possible. While the days of VHS and DVD are long gone, along with their abundance of excess packaging and processing, many have worried that today’s streaming services such as Netflix and Amazon Prime Video might not be quite as environmentally friendly as we think.

Home to the likes of Stranger Things, The Last Kingdom, and The Witcher, Netflix has stated that one hour of streaming produces under 100gCO2e (equivalent to one hundred grams of carbon dioxide), which is less than what’s produced by driving a normal car a quarter of a mile.

However, this doesn’t tell the whole story, as consumers are increasing their media consumption like never before. Netflix’s global energy consumption increased by 84% in 2019 to 451,000 megawatt hours, enough to power 40,000 average US homes for an entire year. And that number has undoubtedly shot through the roof during the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.

As with most anything involving the internet, it’s hard for consumers to truly gauge the impact of their actions with no direct visual evidence. However, a new tool from the University of Bristol in the UK is looking to help streaming companies understand just how much their services affect the environment. However, a new tool from the University of Bristol in the UK is looking to help streaming companies understand just how much their services impact the environment.

As reported in WIRED, the new DIMPACT tool will gather data from across four different sectors of the streaming business: streaming itself, advertising, publishing and business intelligence. Then it generates data on the pollution caused by the company itself as well as its suppliers and customers (Scope 3 emissions). “[We want to see] what can be done to make the delivery of those services less impactful,” said Dr. Daniel Schien, one of the creators of DIMPACT. “We are helping them to understand the energy consumption of their entire system across data centers, networks, and user devices.”

Having now completed a 12-month pilot phase, DIMPACT has already found that the actual environmental impact of an hour of Netflix streaming is better than initially believed, equivalent to a 75W ceiling fan running for four hours in the United States or six hours in Europe. With this information in hand, streaming companies can set realistic and scientifically sound carbon emission reduction goals.

However, Bernardi Pranggono, a senior lecturer in computer network engineering at Britain’s Sheffield Hallam University, has warned that the findings may bring a false sense of security. While Pranggono says the claims seem “reasonable,” he points out that streaming is comparative. While an hour of Netflix may be better than having a fan running all night, it is not better than outdoor activities such as gardening or going for a walk.

The Shift Project, a Paris-based thinktank, has warned that online streaming now accounts for more carbon emissions than the entire aerospace industry and makes up 1% of all global emissions. However, the figures are still widely disputed, with the International Energy Agency (IEA) and World Economic Forum (WEF) saying they have been hugely inflated, a debate that DIMPACT may be able to end.

While there is little doubt that the problem of streaming emissions has flown under the radar of many people, the figures may seem somewhat alarmist in light of DIMPACT’s findings. Improved efficiency of data centers, networks, and devices has undoubtedly already had a significant and positive impact. With DIMPACT already being used by the likes of the BBC, Sky, and ITV over in the UK and Netflix getting ready to release their emissions reduction goals in the coming weeks, the industry may finally be moving to a more transparent and agreed way forward.

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h/t The Independent