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Does Binge Watching Leave a Carbon Footprint?

There’s ample data to suggest that binge watching of The Mandalorian on Disney+ or shows on other streaming services is creating a bigger carbon footprint than you might realize—or that you may want.

If you’re looking to understand your digital carbon footprint and how to reduce it, here’s some background on how surprisingly big an energy footprint streaming services have, and what you can do to help.

What Is the Carbon Footprint of Binge Watching?

The behind-the-scenes culprits: Big data centers are required to run streaming videos on Amazon Prime, Apple TV+ (the computing giant’s new digital video service), Netflix, Hulu, and other streaming sites. [1]

Casual streamers may assume their energy consumption and their resulting carbon footprints may be minimal, but The Shift Project, a French think tank, quantified important usage data that thoughtful viewers should know: [2]

  • Watching a half-hour show creates 1.6 kg of carbon dioxide emissions—the emissions equivalent of driving nearly 4 miles.
  • In the aggregate, online video streaming services churned out emissions equal to Spain’s (yes, the entire country).
  • And the amount of internet traffic attributed to streaming is expected to double.
  • The Cisco Network projects that online videos may account for 80% of all internet traffic by 2022. [3]

Is Your Streaming Service Leaving a Digital Carbon Footprint?

As much as 58% of all online traffic is related to streaming videos from Netflix, Hulu, Amazon Prime, and other sites, according to a 2019 report from Sandvine. [4]

Further, a 2018 paper from Nature Research found data centers from these services use up to 1% of global energy demand and add 0.3% to overall carbon emissions. [5] Also, Senior Expert Life Cycle Assessment Anders Andrae of Huawei Technologies, a global provider of information and communications technology (ICT) infrastructure and smart devices, projects that data centers are likely to consume up to 8% of electricity around the globe by 2030. [6]

Streaming Services That Are Affecting the Environment

Streaming is leading to more energy consumption by end-users in the devices they choose. According to a Natural Resources Defense Council 2015 report, home television sets will stretch from an average of 22 inches in 1997 to 50 inches in 2021. And increasingly common 4K screens use 30% more energy than HD screens, the report said. [7]

Greenpeace issued a report two years ago called Clicking Clean: Who Is Winning The Race To Build A Green Internet? [8] Greenpeace USA Senior IT Analyst Gary Cook has said, “Digital videos come in very large file sizes and (are) getting bigger with each new generation of higher definition video.” Processing more data to stream videos instantly requires more energy from the data centers, Cook said. [9]

How to Offset Your Carbon Footprint

Greenpeace’s Cook recommends a starting point for consumers would be to demand that internet giants use renewable energy at their data centers. By using clean energy rather than fossil fuels, the streaming companies can minimize the damage to the planet their data systems cause.

Greenpeace scored several dozen companies in its 2017 report, and to select a few major streaming companies as examples, Netflix earned an overall “D” grade from the advocacy group. Greenpeace estimated that Netflix’s renewable-energy generation share was 17%. Google (YouTube), in contrast, earned an “A” Greenpeace grade and had 56% of its energy derived from renewables. Apple, which also earned an “A” overall, generated 83% of its energy from renewable sources, according to the Greenpeace report.

Grassroots advocacy for renewables can have a positive effect. For instance, Netflix now produces “energy updates” to advise its customers on how its renewable energy effort is going. [10], [11]

Reducing Your Movie Night Carbon Footprint

The Shift Project report from France offers a couple of design changes that could help reduce the industry’s impact on the planet.

  • Disable autoplay. The feature promotes ongoing video consumption.
  • Limit the amount of data users have access to.
  • Design services to help users manage online time more sustainably.

How Much Time Are You Spending in Front of the TV?

What can you do to stem this tide of energy being increasingly gobbled up by online streaming videos? Part of the responsibility lies with the individual. If you can just cut back to streaming an hour a night, rather than three or four hours, you can reduce the demand for such services and likely improve our health as well. Screen-usage apps can help monitor device time and set limits that make sense. To help reduce your carbon footprint even further, consider purchasing carbon offsets. You can start by calculating your personal footprint with our free, online carbon footprint calculator.

SOURCES:

  1. Ratner, Paul. “Your Netflix binge-watching makes climate change worse, say experts,” BigThink.com October 30, 2019, 4th paragraph. https://bigthink.com/surprising-science/netflix-binge-watching-makes-climate-change-worse
  2. Agence France-Presse, “Half-hour of Netflix leads to emissions of 1.6kg of CO2 equivalent: Climate experts.” October 28, 2019, third paragraph. https://www.livemint.com/companies/news/half-hour-of-netflix-leads-to-emissions-of-1-6kg-of-co2-equivalent-climate-experts-11572240109579.html
  3. Cisco Visual Networking Index: Forecast and Trends, 2017–2022 White Paper. Trend 4: Applications traffic growth, first paragraph, last line; and Figure 13, Global IP traffic by application category. https://www.cisco.com/c/en/us/solutions/collateral/service-provider/visual-networking-index-vni/white-paper-c11-741490.html.
  4. Sandvine 1H 2019 Global Internet Phenomena Report. https://www.sandvine.com/hubfs/Sandvine_Redesign_2019/Downloads/Internet%20Phenomena/2013-1h-global-internet-phenomena-report.pdf.
  5. Jones, Nicola. “How to stop data centres from gobbling up the world’s electricity,” Nature Research, September 12, 2018. Third paragraph, fourth and fifth lines. https://www.nature.com/articles/d41586-018-06610-y.
  6. Jones, Nicola. “How to stop data centres from gobbling up the world’s electricity,” Nature Research, September 12, 2018. Caption, third line for the “Energy Forecast” graphic; and sixth paragraph, second line. https://www.nature.com/articles/d41586-018-06610-y.
  7. Horowitz, Noah. “Seeing The Big Picture: Ultra High-Definition Televisions Could Add $1 Billion To Viewers’ Annual Electric Bills,” Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), November 2015. https://www.nrdc.org/sites/default/files/uhd-tv-energy-use-report.pdf.
  8. Greenpeace, “Amazon Still Lags behind Apple, Google in Greenpeace Renewable Energy Report,” Greenpeace.org, January 10, 2017. http://www.clickclean.org/downloads/ClickClean2016%20HiRes.pdf.
  9. Agence France-Presse, “Chill your Netflix habit, climate experts say,” Technology Inquirer, November 4, 2019, paragraphs 6 and 7. https://technology.inquirer.net/92078/chill-your-netflix-habit-climate-experts-say
  10. Netflix, “Renewable Energy at Netflix: An Update,” media.netflix.com, June 14, 2017. https://media.netflix.com/en/company-blog/renewable-energy-at-netflix-an-update.
  11. Netflix, “A Renewable Energy Update from Us,” media.netflix.com, March 18, 2019. https://media.netflix.com/en/company-blog/a-renewable-energy-update-from-us.


Take the first step.

Start small. Be conscious of the impact your actions have on the environment and figure out what you can do to lessen the blow. Calculate, conserve, and offset.

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