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Is Netflix Bad for the Environment? How Streaming Video Contributes to Climate Change
Sending dozens of emails a day, making a quick call on WhatsApp, uploading some photos to the cloud, watching a short viral clip on YouTube: It's all part of the digital daily life around the world. For the individual, it may be "just one photo" or "just a few minutes of video," but, taken together, our collective internet traffic contributes enormously to climate change.
Everything a computer, tablet or smartphone does requires electricity. And, to generate that electricity, the world still predominantly uses fossil fuels — which produce carbon dioxide and contribute to heat-trapping greenhouse gases.
Digital technologies have even surpassed the aerospace industry in terms of carbon emissions. While aviation's share of global CO2 emissions is estimated to be around 2.5%, and rising, nearly 4% of all CO2 emissions can now be attributed to global data transfer and the necessary infrastructure, according to a recent study by Paris-based think tank The Shift Project. The NGO is researching ways to redesign the world's economy so that it runs on renewable energy.
"Limited Energy Resources"
The calculations include both the energy costs of creating IT infrastructure and the actual use of that infrastructure — with the latter consuming 10 percentage points more electricity than the production of all equipment and technology combined.
According to a projection by IT giant Cisco, by 2022 around 60% of the world's population will be online, with video making up more than 80 percent of all internet traffic. Maxime Efoui-Hess, an energy and environmental expert at The Shift Project and author of the study, said we need to urgently reconsider the future of internet use and think about cutting back.
"We have limited energy resources," he said, pointing out that even if we make the shift to renewables now, "the internet is a worldwide thing, so it would require every country in the world to be powered by renewable energy." But he said that goal remains impossible in such a short time, meaning we can't let internet usage grow as rapidly as it has to this point.
The largest share of that growth is now video traffic: 80% of all data transferred online is video data, with nearly 60% of that being online video, meaning streaming videos stored on a server and viewed remotely, via sites like Netflix, YouTube or Vimeo.
The problem: transferring videos online is data-intensive. In 2018, online video traffic was responsible for more than 300 million tons of CO2, equivalent to what a country the size of Spain releases in a year — for all sectors combined. The higher a video's resolution, the more data that's required. Ten hours of high-definition film consumes more bits and bytes than all the English-language articles in Wikipedia put together, according to The Shift Project.
The way we consume videos and movies has also changed radically. In the past, films told a story with moving pictures and music; today, online videos are primarily used to hook a person's attention for as long as possible. "It moves, and there's sound, and that's attractive to our brain," said Efoui-Hess. "But it can lead to addictive behavior."
Platforms like YouTube, Facebook and Netflix have increasingly exploited this biological preference, he said. The autoplay function lets videos start automatically, without sound and with subtitles, making information even easier to consume. "That's just the way to make you watch the whole video — and it works."
Last Mile is Crucial
Can this growing hunger for videos be satisfied, in a way that spares the climate? Or do we have to go without our favorite streaming TV series and films? Efoui-Hess points out that it would indeed be better to watch something on a standard TV broadcast — analogue broadcasting also consumes electricity, but the data is only transmitted over a limited geographical area, rather than halfway around the world, as is the case with streaming video.
Lutz Stobbe, who researches the environmental impact of information and telecommunications technology at the Fraunhofer Institute for Reliability and Microintegration in Berlin, said when it comes to data transfer, the last mile is crucial — as in, what specific technology is used to bring the data to the consumer.
Mobile data transfer uses the most electricity. Basic transmission loss, solid structures like buildings, vegetation and atmospheric conditions — in other words, weather — can weaken electromagnetic waves and led to buffering videos. For that reason, the transmission signal needs to be boosted, especially when the signal is being routed over long distances through old copper cables.
"The power amplifiers have a low electrical efficiency, which means that about half of the energy used for data transmission is lost as heat," said Stobbe. "The most efficient transmission technology is fiber-optic cables, which transmit signals by light."
Germans, for example, mainly surf the internet via copper cables; as of 2017, just over 2% of all broadband connections in the country used fiber-optic cables. By contrast, the mobile communication network is being expanded on a massive scale.
To help save on energy, Stobbe is currently working on something known as edge computing, in which the desired data is stored locally, closer to the consumer in places like data centers in major cities. That way, it doesn't have to travel as far to get to where it's going.
Stobbe said those hoping for next-generation devices and processes to be more energy-efficient will be disappointed. When it comes to technology, energy efficiency hasn't improved significantly in the last decade. That's why it's best to use your older devices as long as possible, he said.
What remains are small tweaks to our daily routine. "This is what's called digital hygiene," said Stobbe. "Do you really need to upload 25 images of the same thing to the cloud? Every photo, every video is constantly backed up, for safety reasons, and that consumes energy every time. If instead you delete a few things here and there, you can save energy."
Efoui-Hess is also an advocate of small changes. "Use Wi-Fi, not mobile networks, watch on the smallest screen you can — and high-definition video on a smartphone aren't really necessary," he said, pointing out that watching high-definition videos on a smartphone over a mobile network uses the most electricity, and consequently is the worst for the climate.
To raise awareness of the impact everyday digital life has on the climate, The Shift Project has developed a CO2 calculator browser add-on that measures the emissions generated by internet activity. Nevertheless, the NGO doesn't place the responsibility solely on the end user; it believes the issue should be an important part of the political agenda. But so far, neither governments nor international institutions have recognized the problem, let alone made any efforts to bring about change.
Reposted with permission from our media associate Deutsche Welle.
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A powerful volcano on Monday rocked an uninhabited island frequented by tourists about 30 miles off New Zealand's coast. Authorities have confirmed that five people died. They expect that number to rise as some are missing and police officials issued a statement that flights around the islands revealed "no signs of life had been seen at any point,", as The Guardian reported.
"Based on the information we have, we do not believe there are any survivors on the island," the police said in their official statement. "Police is working urgently to confirm the exact number of those who have died, further to the five confirmed deceased already."
The eruption happened on New Zealand's Whakaari/White Island, an islet jutting out of the Bay of Plenty, off the country's North Island. The island is privately owned and is typically visited for day-trips by thousands of tourists every year, according to The New York Times.
My god, White Island volcano in New Zealand erupted today for first time since 2001. My family and I had gotten off it 20 minutes before, were waiting at our boat about to leave when we saw it. Boat ride home tending to people our boat rescued was indescribable. #whiteisland pic.twitter.com/QJwWi12Tvt— Michael Schade (@sch) December 9, 2019
Michael Schade / Twitter
At the time of the eruption on Monday, about 50 passengers from the Ovation of Seas were on the island, including more than 30 who were part of a Royal Caribbean cruise trip, according to CNN. Twenty-three people, including the five dead, were evacuated from the island.
The eruption occurred at 2:11 pm local time on Monday, as footage from a crater camera owned and operated by GeoNet, New Zealand's geological hazards agency, shows. The camera also shows dozens of people walking near the rim as white smoke billows just before the eruption, according to Reuters.
Police were unable to reach the island because searing white ash posed imminent danger to rescue workers, said John Tims, New Zealand's deputy police commissioner, as he stood next to Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern in a press conference, as The New York Times reported. Tims said rescue workers would assess the safety of approaching the island on Tuesday morning. "We know the urgency to go back to the island," he told reporters.
"The physical environment is unsafe for us to return to the island," Tims added, as CNN reported. "It's important that we consider the health and safety of rescuers, so we're taking advice from experts going forward."
Authorities have had no communication with anyone on the island. They are frantically working to identify how many people remain and who they are, according to CNN.
Geologists said the eruption is not unexpected and some questioned why the island is open to tourism.
"The volcano has been restless for a few weeks, resulting in the raising of the alert level, so that this eruption is not really a surprise," said Bill McGuire, emeritus professor of geophysical and climate hazards at University College London, as The Guardian reported.
"White Island has been a disaster waiting to happen for many years," said Raymond Cas, emeritus professor at Monash University's school of earth, atmosphere and environment, as The Guardian reported. "Having visited it twice, I have always felt that it was too dangerous to allow the daily tour groups that visit the uninhabited island volcano by boat and helicopter."
The prime minister arrived Monday night in Whakatane, the town closest to the eruption, where day boats visiting the island are docked. Whakatane has a large Maori population.
Ardern met with local council leaders on Monday. She is scheduled to meet with search and rescue teams and will speak to the media at 7 a.m. local time (1 p.m. EST), after drones survey the island, as CNN reported.
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