Plenty of things cause a significant impact on the environment: traveling, how we dispose of waste, what we eat—essentially all human activities. Each one uses energy, produces emissions, and therefore contributes to a carbon footprint. But what about the activities that aren’t so straightforward? Have you ever wondered how streaming—something millions of people do every day—impacts the environment?
With more accessibility to digital versions of movies, TV, and music available now more than ever before, streaming is the top choice for many Americans. In the first half of 2021, paid music streaming saw 82.1 million subscribers, according to Statista. Similarly, Cordcutting.com reports 62% of U.S. adults subscribe to streaming services with the average American subscribing to an average of 3.4 services.
Streaming comes at a price—and not just a financial one. Streaming also has an impact on the environment.
The Environmental Impact of Streaming
Because streaming is done digitally, you wouldn’t be alone in thinking that it doesn’t have a carbon footprint. But it does. Brightly consulted Laura Marks, Grant Strate University Professor in the School for the Contemporary Arts at Simon Fraser University and co-author of the paper Streaming Media’s Environmental Impact.
“Streaming lies on a massive infrastructure of data centers, networks, and devices, including computers, phones, and TVs. These are responsible for 3-4% of the global carbon footprint. This number is rising fast, despite efficiency measures, as demand for high-definition streaming increases and more infrastructure is built around the world,” Marks explains. “Streaming includes things like movies on demand (like Netflix and Hulu), YouTube, and other consumer-content channels (like games, social media, video conferencing, and video calling). It also includes new applications like Peloton.”
In order to get to the bottom of streaming’s carbon footprint, Marks explains we have to take into consideration everything that goes into the device’s production.
“We also have to measure the carbon footprint of production, which in the case of devices is a whopping 85-90%,” Marks explains. “That means most of the energy our devices use occurs even before we purchase them. Because most of this global energy consumption comes from fossil fuels—still around 79% of the global total—the carbon footprint is considerable.”
When it comes to listening to music, streaming undoubtedly makes the smallest impact in comparison to CDs (which emit 165 grams of CO2 equivalent) and vinyl records and cassette tapes (both of which emit well over 2 kilograms of CO2 per unit). One hour of streaming produces about 55 grams of CO2 equivalent—the same amount as charging seven smartphones. Not nothing, but also not as much.
Then there’s the other kind of media streaming: TV shows, films, and videos. According to an industry-backed study from climate group Carbon Trust, streaming a one-hour program has around the same carbon footprint as boiling a kettle for six minutes or popping four bags of popcorn in the microwave. Netflix also added that streaming one hour of a show or movie emitted less than 100 grams of CO2 equivalent—the same amount as charging 12 smartphones.
While the environmental impact of streaming doesn’t seem like much—especially in comparison to other habits humans have—it’s also important to consider how much we’re streaming. As in, how often.
ABC News reports the average American spends 11 hours and 54 minutes each day connected to, and therefore potentially streaming, some kind of media. That could be via TV, phone, tablet, computer, or laptop. If one streaming hour equates to about 100 grams of CO2 equivalent and we’re streaming for almost 12 hours a day, that’s still extensive: 1,200 grams of CO2 equivalent per day. That’s the equivalent of driving three miles or charging 146 smartphones.
Still, Marks maintains that while our individual streaming habits are important to note, they’re not the main issue.
“Calculating individual streams doesn’t give a good measure of the overall carbon footprint of streaming. This is because networks and data centers are operating 24/7, largely independent of how many people are streaming at the moment,” Marks says. “It’s similar to how planes fly no matter how many passengers they have. The problem is increasing demand for streaming, comparable to putting more planes in the sky. What we need to do is prevent an increase by curbing demand for even more infrastructure.”
Alternatively, Emma Fryer, associate director, and Susanne Baker, climate, environment, and sustainability associate director, at the non-profit think tank techUK, believe that consumption is a huge part of the issue with streaming.
“Yes, streaming uses energy, but it’s replacing consumption models that were much more carbon-intensive. Previously we traveled to the cinema physically to watch new releases. And for video on demand, we had to go out and buy or rent physical media—DVDs, or for those who remember them, VHS tapes,” Fryer and Baker told TechRadar Pro. “Streaming video is a much more efficient way to consume content than traditional approaches, but the result is that we consume much more—a classic rebound factor.”
That being said, let’s dive deeper into how streaming causes emissions. According to Fortune, half of the emissions are produced by the device itself. As you could guess, older equipment requires more energy to run. It’s therefore less sustainable—and ultimately harms the environment more—than a sleeker, newer piece of tech would when streaming. The rest of those emissions come from the hubs that help streaming work: data centers, web routers, and distribution networks. The information on your device has to come from somewhere, right?
There’s good news for viewers who prefer streaming in HD, too: The same Netflix-backed study found that streaming quality makes little to no difference in terms of environmental impact. Now, that’s a win.
Netflix—one of the largest, most popular streaming giants of the times—also seems to be doing its part to contribute as little emissions as possible. The company currently has a goal of reaching net-zero greenhouse gas emissions by the end of 2022. Yep, that’s this year.
“To reach this goal, we are working toward reducing our internal emissions by 45% below 2019 levels by 2030, per our validated Science Based Target. We’re also investing in external projects around the world that remove carbon from the atmosphere, such as protecting forests above-and-below water,” Emma Stewart, PhD, Netflix’s sustainability officer, tells Brightly. “In addition—to address the indirect emissions of our supply chain—we’re financing projects that retain and restore nature’s ability to store CO2. In order to have the greatest positive impact in our industry, we voluntarily take responsibility for more of our supply chain emissions than required by the GHG Protocol.”
Not to be outdone, Hulu has also been making eco-friendly moves since 2018. That’s when it was announced that it migrated its data centers to a new facility that’s 100% powered by renewable energy.
And what about music? People are streaming a lot of music nowadays, too, and despite a low output, the sheer amount we’re streaming takes a toll on the environment. For instance, take Olivia Rodrigo’s breakout song, “Driver’s License.” New Statesman estimates her viral hit has had so many Spotify streams since January 2021 that it produced a greater impact than flying from London to New York and back 4,000 times.
And that’s just one song. Now, how about if you went through an entire digital album? The same research shows that listening to an album for more than five hours is more harmful to the environment than a plastic CD or vinyl record.
Here’s why: Though we’re streaming digitally and can’t necessarily see emissions come out of our phones, the reality is that streaming takes energy. Behind the scenes, all over the world, server farms—containing hundreds, if not thousands, of hard drives that store all the data—are working, using up energy to supply music streaming platforms.
Not only do these server farms require a heck of a lot of energy to run, but they also need to be cooled so they don’t overheat.
How Can Streaming Become More Sustainable?
Though we applaud Netflix’s lofty sustainable goals, there is still a lot that needs to be done in order for streaming to truly be more sustainable. A lot of that falls on the shoulders of production: how sustainably films, TV shows, and music are made. With more sustainable practices on the frontlines of production and greener tech serving as replacements in server farms, we could see a healthier streaming future.
In the meantime, though, WaterBear Network—a lesser-known, sustainable alternative to other streaming platforms—is offering a bit of hope. Free of charge, WaterBear prides itself on being the first video-on-demand platform with the planet front of mind.
On WaterBear, you’ll find exclusive (and non-exclusive) content with environmental themes taken straight from the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals—biodiversity, climate change, circularity, and community. There are more than 1,000 documentaries and 800 shorts on the network.
The platform goes even further by offering viewers a list of actionable items once the credits roll. Viewers can then choose to share the information on social media, donate to one of its 92 non-profit organization partners, or take a sustainability pledge. But providing eco-friendly content isn’t all the WaterBear Network does. It uses far less energy to stream its video content by using Vimeo.
Vimeo uses Akamai for its videos’ content delivery. Unlike other streaming sites, Akamai uses renewable energy whenever possible and also has aggressively sustainable policies on disposing of e-waste, secures net-new renewable power to offset its global electricity load, and seeks to mitigate greenhouse gas emissions whenever (and however) possible.
Steps You Can Take to Stream More Sustainably
To the average, unassuming user, most of these statistics can be pretty shocking. Luckily, if you’re wondering how you can lessen your impact, there are ways.
First and foremost, the golden rule of making streaming more sustainable is to follow one of the most important “R’s”: reduce. Reduce your consumption and try not to stream music for more than five hours at a time. Limit your TV streaming time, too, and be cognizant of what streaming for X amount of hours does to the planet.
If you want to calculate your impact, you can do so by multiplying the number of hours you typically stream by 100 grams of CO2 equivalent per hour. If you stream 10 hours a day, that’s 1,000 grams of CO2 equivalent per day.
“The first thing is to moderate our consumption of devices, because they’re responsible for about 1/3 of streaming’s total carbon footprint,” Marks says. “Use fewer devices and keep them for as long as possible! Then, help to curb demand by moderating the time spent streaming, and decreasing resolution. So, basically, changing the habits that have been set in place in the past few years.”
Also, stream on a smaller device when you can. A laptop or phone emits significantly less CO2 equivalent than streaming on a TV does.
With streaming quickly becoming one of the primary ways people consume their preferred content, it’s crucial to demand that greener tech be put in place in order to do so. But at the end of the day, streaming is always going to be a more favorable option than its travel- and energy-intensive predecessors.
“Streaming is relatively sustainable in a few cases. Small devices use much less energy than 4K TVs, which are huge energy hogs,” Marks says. “But walking, cycling, or taking public transit to the movies are much better than streaming—and social, too! It takes energy to produce a DVD, but if you watch it more than once—or borrow it from the library—it’s a far more sustainable option. Again, our collective action is important not to increase demand. So for example, instead of streaming a favorite movie many times, it’s much better to buy the DVD.”
All it takes is making a few small changes to your streaming habits in order to give the planet a brighter future.
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