Do we know the true environmental impact of streaming?

Written by Maja Bartczak

Posted on 21/04/21

“Netflix and chill” and “binge-watching” series have become very popular pastime activities in recent years. People have always enjoyed watching movies, TV series and shows on the Internet due to easy and fast access to the streaming services.
However, since the pandemic began, people are streaming more than ever. Streaming services became the most subscribed platforms during the pandemic, providing entertainment to people who are required to stay at home. The obvious benefit of providing pleasure in time of need by platforms like Netflix, HBO GO, and Disney+ comes with an invisible environmental price. Currently, the International Energy Agency (the IEA) estimates the carbon footprint of streaming at a modest, relatively small, level. However, the impact of streaming media on the environment is expected to rise, particularly, given the exponential increase in usage.

Impact of pandemic on streaming platforms

At the beginning of the pandemic, Netflix noted a rise in subscription by total 8.76 millions of new subscribers. Between January and June 2020, when almost all countries went into lockdowns, more than 25 million new subscribers joined the global Netflix family.
Disney+ , the second most popular streaming platform, launched merely in November 2019. Now, Disney has already more than 94 million subscribers. The exponential growth of subscription is naturally caused by the pandemic and people being required to stay at home.
In general, according to BusinessWire (2020), Media Video Streaming has noted a subscription growth by 400% since the pandemic started. Despite the economic hardship that many people experience, subscriptions are still growing.

Complexity of measuring carbon footprint of streaming platforms

With the growth in use and demand for streaming services, its impact on our environment grows too. Although the current estimated carbon footprint is relatively small, in comparison to other emission-related activities, the impact is expected to rise. Due to the complex nature of calculating the carbon footprint of streaming platforms, it is relatively hard to estimate the true environmental impact of such services. To measure carbon footprint for this specific area, we need to take into consideration the following aspects: energy use across the chain, from data centers to end users, type of device that end users use to stream videos, and more importantly how the energy is generated in a specific country (Kamiya, 2020). Hence, the carbon footprint of streaming may be smaller in countries where the electricity is mostly generated by use of renewable energy. It is also believed that the impact is smaller when using smaller devices, such as smartphones and tablets. Smart TVs are said to be the one with the highest carbon footprint.
The relatively small impact of the streaming services may be caused due to improvements of the energy efficiency across the chain, from the data centers to devices used by the consumers. Nonetheless, it is becoming apparent that these efficiency improvements will not keep up with the exponential growth of demand of streaming services. Hence, it is predicted that the environmental impact of streaming media will grow.

Streaming services and the need to transform energy systems

The overall impact of streaming video heavily depends on how we generate the electricity (Kamiya, 2020). In other words, the current and future extent of environmental impact of the streaming platforms is dependent on our energy systems. Energy is responsible for around 60% of global emissions according to the IEA. There is an inherent link between energy and climate change. In order to fight climate change and reduce our emissions, we need to decarbonize our energy systems by transforming them into green energy systems based on renewable sources.
Generating clean and sustainable energy will make our streaming habits greener! But even now, you can try to make your streaming habits more sustainable. How? For example, instead of binging a show in one evening, try to watch one episode per day. Instead of using a smart TV, try to use a smaller device, like a laptop or tablet.

Calculate your emissions! Click on this link and scroll down to the calculator.

Sources

Kamiya G., (2020, December 11) The carbon footprint of streaming video: fact-checking the headlines. International Energy Agencyhttps://www.iea.org/commentaries/the-carbon-footprint-of-streaming-video-fact-checking-the-headlines

Energy, Climate Change and Environment 2014 Insights (2014). International Energy Agency. https://www.oecd-ilibrary.org/energy/energy-climate-change-and-environment_9789264220744-en

Subscription Businesses Remain Resilient Amid COVID-19 (2020, June 8), Businesswire https://www.businesswire.com/news/home/20200608005104/en/Subscription-Businesses-Remain-Resilient-Amid-COVID-19

Spangler T., (2020, June 21) Netflix Adds 8.8 Million Subscribers in Q4, Cites Competition for Lower U.S. Gains. The Variety. https://variety.com/2020/digital/news/netflix-q4-2019-earnings-results-1203474435/

Stoll J., (2021, February 12). Disney+ subscriber numbers worldwide 2021. Statista. https://www.statista.com/statistics/1095372/disney-plus-number-of-subscribers-us/

Walsh J., (2020, October 20) Netflix Subscriber growth slows after surging during pandemic. Forbes. https://www.forbes.com/sites/joewalsh/2020/10/20/netflix-subscriber-growth-slows-after-surging-during-pandemic/?sh=11a11c5d244e

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