Is the Carbon Footprint of Streaming Video a Big Deal?

No, and every year it is getting better. Worrying about it is silly.

A retro-like image of a family of four watching black-and-white TV.
It was so much easier before Netflix and streaming.

H. Armstrong Roberts

The Guardian article has a grabby title: "Streaming’s dirty secret: how viewing Netflix top 10 creates vast quantity of CO2." The article starts by saying "the carbon footprint produced by fans watching a month of Netflix’s top 10 global TV hits is equivalent to driving a car a hefty distance beyond Saturn."

"While much of the focus of campaigners falls on sectors that emit the most CO2 – such as aviation, automotive and food – the explosion in popularity of services from Disney+ to Netflix is raising the question of just how bad the streaming boom is for the planet. Every activity in the chain required to stream video, from the use of huge data centres and transmission over wifi and broadband to watching the content on a device, requires electricity – the majority of which is generated by emitting greenhouse gases."

This is actually a bit of a distortion. As Treehugger's Matt Alderton noted in his post "What Is the Carbon Footprint of Your Netflix Habit? New Study Sheds Insight," the Carbon Trust estimated that an hour of streaming generated the equivalent of about 55 grams of carbon dioxide (CO2) per hour in Europe,

George Kamiya of Carbon Brief notes "the relatively low climate impact of streaming video today is thanks to rapid improvements in the energy efficiency of data centres, networks and devices." Every year the numbers get better, and the International Energy Agency has reduced its estimate of power consumption down to 36 grams of CO2 per hour.

When researching my book, "Living the 1.5 Degree Lifestyle," I tried to figure out the footprint of an hour of leisure time watching videos and using computers. I wrote:

"Energy is a major operating cost, so the companies have been ruthless in their hunt for efficiencies. The servers and the hardware have followed a Moore’s Law-like increase in efficiency and reduction in energy consumption per gigabyte handled. It really had to, or google and Amazon would be sucking up every kilowatt in the country. Cooling the data centers was one of the biggest consumers of electricity, so they located many of them in cooler places and switched to chips that put out much less heat. Meanwhile, the data companies got greener. Apple claims to run the iCloud on 100% renewables, Google claims to be carbon-neutral, as does Microsoft. Netflix “offsets and buys renewable energy certificates.” Amazon, by far the largest cloud service, promised to be 100% renewable but is really only about 50% now and has been backsliding."

I assumed the number couldn't just be for the data services: "The entire entertainment industry is moving into our TV room, with Netflix, Apple, and Amazon Prime producing thousands of hours of entertainment that comes straight into our homes, and one could probably write another book just about its footprint."

I assumed the streaming industry was causing a dramatic increase in the number of shows being produced worldwide to fill all those pipes and noted that the American Time Use Survey found the average American watches 2.81 hours per day. It notes: "We have to include our share of the carbon footprint for the entire entertainment industry."

What’s behind the screen during those 2.81 hours of TV? Lauren Harper of the Earth Institute wrote:

"The United States film and entertainment industry produces an average of 700 films and 500 television series a year. On average, these industries spend millions of dollars on everything from flights for actors and actresses to food for crew teams, fuel for trailer generators and, of course, electricity for picture perfect light. While this results in award-winning entertainment and enjoyable evenings of episode binging, these productions can have large carbon footprints and significant environmental impacts. For example, movies with a budget of $50 million dollars—including such flicks as Zoolander 2, Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves, and Ted—typically produce the equivalent of around 4,000 metric tons of CO2."

I multiplied all that carbon by the number of productions and divided it by the number of subscribers, and even with all the productions and all the servers, I came up with a grand total of 50.4 grams of CO2 per hour. Other people's mileage may vary; if you live in a part of the country with dirty power, your ISP may have a higher footprint and so will your big TV. But it still probably isn't a big number. Sitting on the couch watching TV is pretty low on the carbon-emitting scale of things that we do.

One of the main conclusions I came to in my book is that worrying about 36 grams is silly and counterproductive. You can multiply anything by a big enough number and drive "the approximate equivalent of the current distance between Earth and Saturn." But the real problem is the number of people who are driving at 480 grams per mile. Multiply that by the billion cars on the road and you will get to Alpha Centauri.

So sit back and enjoy the show. We have much bigger things to worry about.

View Article Sources
  1. "Carbon Impact of Video Streaming." Carbon Trust.

  2. "American Time Use Survey." United States Department of Labor.