Is Your Netflix Habit Bad for the Environment?

The smaller your screen, the less energy you use when you stream. GaudiLab/Shutterstock

In the old days, when you had to drive to a movie theater or go to a video store to get some entertainment, it was easy to see how your actions could have an impact on the environment. After all, you were hopping into your car, driving across town and coughing out emissions and using gas all the way.

But now that we're used to staying home and streaming movies and shows, we might get a cocky. After all, we're just picking up our phones or turning on the TV. You're welcome, Mother Nature.

But before you break an arm patting yourself on the back, read on. There's much more to know.

A report from the Shift Project, which bills itself as "the carbon transition think tank," says these activities use more energy than we think.

According to "Climate Crisis: The Unsustainable Use of Online Video," digital technologies are responsible for 4% of greenhouse gas emissions, and that energy use is increasing by 9% a year.

"Stored in data centers, videos are transferred to our terminals (computers, smartphones, connected TVs, etc.) via networks (cables, optical fiber, modems, mobile network antennae, etc.): all these processes require electricity whose production consumes resources and usually involves CO2 emissions," the report points out.

Watching a half-hour show would lead to 3.5 pounds (1.6 kilograms) of carbon dioxide emissions, Shift Project's Maxime Efoui-Hess tells AFP. That's like driving 3.9 miles (6.28 kilometers).

In the European Union, the Eureca project found that data centers there used 25% more energy in 2017 compared to just three years earlier, reports the BBC.

Streaming is only expected to increase as we become more enamored of our devices and the prospect of enjoying entertainment where and when we want it.

Online video use is expected to quadruple from 2017 to 2022 and account for 80% of all internet traffic by 2022, according to projections by CISCO made in 2018. By then, about 60% of the world's population will be online.

But data centers are becoming more efficient

server farm at CERN, data server usage globally is being offset by increases in efficiencies.
The server farm at CERN, the world's largest particle physics Laboratory in Meyrin, Switzerland, is extensive. But conventional wisdom — which says demand for data center services rises rapidly, so too must their global energy use — isn't accurate. Dean Mouhtaropoulos/Getty Images

The answer for a question like this is never simple. While the researchers above are correct in their numbers about digital consumption, there's another angle they aren't taking into consideration, say researchers at Northwestern University.

Use of different equipment on the global level and efficiencies at data centers are increasing every year. Data centers currently represent about 1% of global energy use.

"Every few months it seems there’s another claim about the carbon intensity of Google searching or video streaming and often they’re outdated and ignore the rapidly changing technology that runs the internet," Eric Masanet, a professor of engineering at Northwestern University, told USA Today. Masanet is the lead author of the paper, which was published in the journal Science.

Yes, global usage will increase, says Masanet, but so will efficiencies.

That said, it still helps to be thoughtful about your energy usage.

What you can do

man with phone and laptop
Everything you upload to the cloud uses energy, so experts recommend editing what you save. GaudiLab/Shutterstock

You're probably not going to give up Netflix and other streaming services, but there are things you can do to help lessen the impact of your online use, experts say.

For example, practice good digital hygiene, Lutz Stobbe, who researches the environmental impact of information and telecommunications technology at the Fraunhofer Institute for Reliability and Microintegration in Berlin, tells Ecowatch.

"Do you really need to upload 25 images of the same thing to the cloud? Every photo, every video is constantly backed up, for safety reasons, and that consumes energy every time. If instead you delete a few things here and there, you can save energy."

Here are some other tips:

  • Disable autoplay for video through your browser and on social media.
  • Stream over Wi-Fi, not mobile networks.
  • Watch on the smallest screen you can. Phones tend to be more energy-efficient than TVs or laptops.
  • Turn off your Wi-Fi in your home if you're not using your devices.
  • Don't use high-definition video on small devices. You won't be able to tell the difference.