Mind your video streaming habits, say climate experts

PARIS • Movie nights once required trips to the local video store to rent the latest blockbuster. Now, providers of on-demand video content offer countless binge-worthy options at the touch of a finger.

But experts say the ease of streaming services comes with a hefty environmental price tag.

Watching a half-hour show would lead to emissions of 1.6kg of carbon dioxide equivalent, said Mr Maxime Efoui-Hess of French think-tank The Shift Project. That is equivalent to driving 6.28km.

Last year, online video streaming produced emissions equivalent to what Spain produced, and that amount could double in the next six years, said The Shift Project.

While most of the online traffic - 34 per cent - is related to streaming videos on Netflix, Amazon Prime and Hulu, for example, the next biggest sector is online porn.

"Digital videos come in very large file sizes and (are) getting bigger with each new generation of higher-definition video," said Mr Gary Cook of Greenpeace, which monitors the IT sector's energy footprint. "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.

Much of the energy needed for streaming services is consumed by the data centre, which delivers data to your computer or device.

The centres contribute about 0.3 per cent of all carbon emissions, according to an article by Nature.


Experts remain divided on how much that number will grow.

"For energy consumption to stay flat for the next five to 10 years, significant improvement in IT equipment and data centre energy performance must be made or our appetite for computations must diminish," said Mr Dale Sartor of the Centre of Expertise for Data Centres, which is linked to the United States Department of Energy.

Netflix continues to grow globally - the firm reported a 53 per cent rise in international revenue for streaming subscriptions between 2017 and last year. And Disney and Apple are launching their own streaming services this year.

Meanwhile, the equipment for viewing videos is getting larger - the average screen size was 22 inches in 1997 but is expected to be 50 inches by 2021, the Consumer Technology Association said.

"The changing screen size and related shift to digital video technology have set the stage for higher definition and thus larger file sizes that we are streaming," said Mr Cook. He added: "Exercising collective responsibility, with individuals demanding Internet giants rapidly transition their data centres to renewable energy, has been the biggest driver thus far."


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 29, 2019, with the headline 'Mind your video streaming habits, say climate experts'. Print Edition | Subscribe