Why Streaming Is Bad For The Environment

You might not think watching a video is as bad as using an electric oven. But it is! Here’s why streaming is bad for the environment

By Roberta Fabbrocino

Since lockdowns began, we’ve all been glued to our screens more than ever. We’re contacting friends and family on TikTok, Facebook and Instagram to maintain ‘distance.’ And since bars, clubs and cinemas are closed, we’re turning to Netflix and Hulu for entertainment.  

There’s been much written about how great lockdowns are for the planet, but guess what? Despite the fact that around half the world’s population was shut up inside their homes for months on end, there was barely a dent made in global carbon emissions. This was mainly due to industrial activity, which has a much, much larger planetary impact than, say, the impact of personal vehicles, or even air travel.

But while industry continued mining and producing, we consumers continued polluting the planet in a way you might not expect: by using our devices. Yep, that’s right. Streaming is bad for the environment in ways I, for one, never imagined before. Here’s why.

Why Streaming Is Bad For The Environment

You may not think you’re contributing CO2 to the atmosphere every time you send an email, do a Google search, or listen to a podcast. But you are! More data equals more energy needed to maintain an enormous system that is ready to stream information to your devices at a moment’s notice, as we shall see.

Every single action an internet user performs come with a cost in terms of carbon dioxide. The reason behind this is the fact that energy is required to operate the devices we use and to power the wireless network we access. And that energy normally comes from one of the biggest (and dirtiest) sources of energy on the planet: coal.

On top of that, the data centres and data transmission networks people need to access the internet are also energy-intensive. Data centres, in particular, consume an estimated 200 terawatt-hours (TWh) each year. Surprisingly, they also use a high volume of water, due to the fact that they need cooling.  And those centres are busier now than ever before, thanks in part to the rise of streaming.

High Definition, High Ecological Footprint

Streaming services are more popular than ever. Netflix, one of the most popular such services in the world, has over 92 million paid subscribers worldwide, with 72.9 million in the United States alone. Many may believe that staying in and watching videos is better for the planet than say, taking the bus to the cinema to see a movie. But that’s not true.

According to The Shift Project, a Paris-based non-profit, online video as a whole took up 60% of all global data flows in 2018, generating more than 300 MtCO2. Not sure what that figure means, really? Let’s put it this way: just by watching videos, we’ve emitted as much greenhouse gas into the atmosphere as Spain spews out each year.

And while watching a movie or a video in high definition on a big screen makes the viewing experience more enjoyable, the ever-increasing screen size and quality makes streaming even less eco-friendly. These newer, bigger devices require more energy to function. So much so that currently, based on data from the The Shift Project, watching a high-definition video on a smartphone for just 10 minutes is equivalent to using a 2,000-watt electric oven at full power for five minutes. Whoa, right?

The bad news is that screen sizes are predicted to be growing even larger. Data reveals that the average screen size in 1997 was just 22 inches, but by 2021 the average television size is expected to be a whopping 50 inches. Greenpeace environmental activist Gary Cook group Greenpeace told AFP that this will indeed have an ecological impact. “Digital videos come in very large file sizes and are getting bigger with each new generation of higher definition video. More data equals more energy needed to maintain a system that is ready to stream this video to your device at a moment’s notice,” he said.

Upgrading Devices, Downgrading The Planet

It’s an unfortunate fact that tech companies build in obsolescence to their products. What that means is: they’re not really intended to last all that long, so these companies can make more profit by making you buy new phones more often. Samsung, Apple and other large corporations know that within a few years, all the apps you’ve grown to love won’t be supported by your old device – even if it works well otherwise.

Obviously, having to upgrade devices every few years has a devastating impact on the planet.

A study from McMaster University in Canada published in the Journal of Cleaner Production analysed the carbon impact of the whole Information and Communication Industry (ICT) from around 2010-2020. The study included PCs, laptops, monitors, smartphones, and servers. What they found is shocking: even as we transit from large PCs toward tiny smartphones, the overall environmental impact of technology is getting worse. Way worse.

Whereas ICT represented 1% of the world’s carbon footprint in 2007, it’s already almost tripled, and is on its way to exceed 14% by 2040. Want to put that into perspective? That’s half as large as the carbon impact of the entire transportation industry!

And the worst offender? Smartphones, for a few reasons. With a pitiful two-year average life cycle, they are, quite frankly, more or less disposable. The problem is that building a new smartphone–and specifically, mining the rare materials inside them–represents 85% to 95% of the device’s total CO2 emissions for two years. What that means is: buying one new phone takes as much energy as recharging and operating a smartphone for an entire decade.

Why Streaming Is Bad For The Environment

Big Tech, Big Problems

You would think that Big Tech would be acutely aware of the horrendous impact they’re making on the planet, and would be aiming to reduce it. But no. One independent study concluded that the iPhone 6s created 57% more CO2 than the iPhone 4s. And despite the recycling programs run by Apple and others, currently less than 1% of smartphones are actually being recycled.

But not only is Big Tech guilty of built-in obsolescence and creating devices that demand more data (and thus energy). They’re also guilty of colluding to keep us on our phones longer.

As anyone who watched The Social Dilemma knows, Big Tech companies Facebook, Twitter and Instagram worked with psychologists to ensure they created graphics, interfaces and apps that were as addictive as possible, meaning we spend way more time on our phones than intended, or is even necessary.

Moreover, these tech companies are currently working with governments and banks to force us online even more. For example? Some banks are insisting you use a phone to get a security code to enter before you log on to your account. And if cryptocurrencies take off or if governments do away with cash forever (because it’s ‘dirty,’) that means we’ll be using even more data by having to do banking and shopping online. Which is far, far ‘dirtier’ than paper money, in many ways, as I’ve explained.

Additionally, governments and health companies are also now insisting that we do more and more online tasks, from ‘visiting’ the doctor to going to work meetings. All those Zoom conferences, virtual doctor’s visits and FaceTime with friends due to lockdowns have a huge ecological footprint.

The future will only look bleaker if 5G, smart cities and the internet of things take off and many more devices are forced to hit up the cloud for data.

Are There Solutions?

Now that we know why streaming is bad for the environment, what can we do? Well, plenty, if you really care.

Considering the data above, it’s clear that the internet has a heavy ecological footprint. It’s not just that streaming is bad for the environment – it’s every single thing you do that involves the internet.

Think about it. That could be: using a FitBit or Apple watch; using wireless headphones, bluetooth or a mobile phone; having Siri or Alexa in your home; watching videos on a digital TV; listening to tunes on Spotify or podcasts; using Zoom or Skype on your laptop; FaceTiming friends – pretty much anything you do all day. 

But it doesn’t have to be like that.

Not many years ago, none of what I just mentioned above even existed. People listened to music on CD or LP players; they took tunes with them on MP3 devices. They called people on ground lines. They watched cable TV and saw no need whatsoever for Siri, Alexa or Smartwatches. And you know what? Life was grand.

We can say NO to buying new tech. We can stop using our devices for stupid things like social media and games – especially knowing they were specifically designed to be addictive. Parents can say NO to giving their children tablets and other devices. Let kids be kids! We can also go back to buying used LP records and CDs. We can watch movies on DVDs or via cable.

Ultimately, we need to realise that ‘new’ doesn’t mean ‘better’ or indicate ‘progress.’ In fact, what it more accurately indicates is yet another contribution to the planet’s demise. And it’s up to US to stop that.


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