Streaming services like Netflix, Disney or YouTube have received some attention in the media recently when they voluntarily cut bandwidth use in Europe as Covid-19-related lockdowns across many countries significantly boosted the number of streaming users. These measures resulted in a lower video resolution but also reduced internet traffic to avoid internet disruption.
This, however, sheds light on a related issue, which is the amount of energy that high-resolution streaming consumes and the resulting carbon footprint and negative implications for our planet. Streaming through services like Netflix or Amazon Prime Video requires energy to run the data centres on which the content is stored as well as the energy needed to transmit the content to the users. In addition, end-user devices like smartphones, laptops or TVs consume electricity while watching a movie or series.
The topic made the headlines in early 2020 after Paris-based think tank The Shift Project published a report stating that streaming content on Netflix for 30 minutes was almost as damaging to the planet as driving four miles with a gasoline car. The insights from this study were then published across several mainstream media outlets such as the New York Post or the Guardian. However, in response to the study, several scientists and columnists fact-checked the publication that had received a considerable amount of media attention. As such, the International Energy Agency (IEA) goes into details of the claims made by the study and exposes several flawed assumptions of said study which result in a significant overstatement of the negative impact on the environment. Drawing on the findings of a peer-reviewed research paper, the IEA ascertains that a well-founded claim would put 30 minutes of Netflix on part with driving about 200m in a conventional car. In countries with low-carbon energy sources like France, it would even be comparable to only a 20m car ride. By now, The Shift Project has admitted some calculation errors that resulted in the overstatement.
While Netflix has certainly increased the accessibility and usage of watching movies or series by allowing us to stream from anywhere at any time, as compared to driving to the cinema streaming on Netflix is rather environmentally-friendly. Especially, as the technology company has published in its ESG report that all direct and indirect energy consumption relies on either energy from renewable sources or has been covered with renewable energy certificates and carbon offsets. For Netflix, direct energy consumption includes the electricity in their offices and telecommunication facilities while indirect consumption contains the energy required for delivering Netflix’s services, mainly the usage of cloud services. The main service providers for Netflix are Amazon Web Services and Google Cloud. As stated by Amazon, usage of cloud technologies mostly involves a higher occupancy rate of the cloud infrastructure as compared to traditional servers which results in greater efficiency and thus lower energy consumption. In summary, enjoying the streaming services of Netflix results in a rather modest environmental footprint from energy consumption through data centres.
However, the transmission of data as well as the energy consumption of the streaming device also have a significant impact. Additionally, the rise of streaming services across many industries has also resulted in an increase in environmental strain. Consumers who want to reduce their burden on the environment might switch to streaming on less energy-intensive devices like tablets as compared to TV screens or lower the video quality. Besides, streaming with WI-FI should be preferred as this significantly reduces energy consumption as compared to streaming via a 4G network. Lastly, this might also open up the debate about Netflix’s pricing. Here, the question remains whether for instance GBP 5.99 per month for the basic plan can be considered a fair price that also takes into account the environmental burden that streaming entails. More broadly, we may need to better incorporate the environmental liabilities of digital services when deriving a price for a particular service. Especially for digital services like Netflix, this might be challenging as the emissions typically occur far away from the end-consumer. Thus, raising awareness of the emissions of digital products which are less visible than travelling by plane might be a good starting point.