Streaming video over the internet is becoming more popular with every passing year. While Netflix might be the first thing that comes to mind when most people hear about streaming video, all the major players are also betting big on the technology (Apple, Google, Amazon, cable companies and telecoms, etc). Meanwhile, DVD sales are going down. This raises the question: Is streaming video more environmentally-friendly than the technology that it is replacing?
Researchers from the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory and McCormick School of Engineering have decided to look into it. Using life cycle analysis tools, they were able to estimate the primary energy use and greenhouse-gas emissions associated with watching video via streaming or on a DVD. The results were not as clear-cut as some might as believed:
This shows that streaming is about on par with DVD watching as long as you get your DVD via the postal system (which is how Netflix began). If you have to drive to a store to get it, this skews things pretty clearly in favor of streaming in both the energy used and CO2 emitted.
But these are averages. You can adjust to your specific case. For example, if you drive an electric car that is charged from a clean source, driving to the store doesn't produce much pollution, and your DVD player's operation will also be powered by clean power. Streaming should also become cleaner over time as more datacenters are powered by renewables, and as Moore's Law means that it takes fewer servers to power the same number of video feeds. On the other hand, people are probably watching more video now than they did in the DVD era because streaming is more convenient and often an "all-you-can-eat" buffet. But on the third hand, people watching more video might mean that they don't drive as much for their entertainment, so it could be a net gain... See how everything is connected and there are many variables?
Back to DVD vs streaming: This study only presents us with a snapshot in time, not an immutable truth for all time, but it gives you an idea of where each option stands.