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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By Dana M Bergstrom, Euan Ritchie, Lesley Hughes and Michael Depledge
In 1992, 1,700 scientists warned that human beings and the natural world were "on a collision course." Seventeen years later, scientists described planetary boundaries within which humans and other life could have a "safe space to operate." These are environmental thresholds, such as the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere and changes in land use.
The Good and Bad News<p><span>Ecosystems consist of living and non-living components, and their interactions. They work like a super-complex engine: when some components are removed or stop working, knock-on consequences can lead to system failure.</span></p><p>Our study is based on measured data and observations, not modeling or predictions for the future. Encouragingly, not all ecosystems we examined have collapsed across their entire range. We still have, for instance, some intact reefs on the Great Barrier Reef, especially in deeper waters. And northern Australia has some of the most intact and least-modified stretches of savanna woodlands on Earth.</p><p><span>Still, collapses are happening, including in regions critical for growing food. This includes the </span><a href="https://www.mdba.gov.au/importance-murray-darling-basin/where-basin" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Murray-Darling Basin</a><span>, which covers around 14% of Australia's landmass. Its rivers and other freshwater systems support more than </span><a href="https://www.abs.gov.au/ausstats/[email protected]/latestproducts/94F2007584736094CA2574A50014B1B6?opendocument" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">30% of Australia's food</a><span> production.</span></p><p><span></span><span>The effects of floods, fires, heatwaves and storms do not stop at farm gates; they're felt equally in agricultural areas and natural ecosystems. We shouldn't forget how towns ran out of </span><a href="https://www.mdba.gov.au/issues-murray-darling-basin/drought#effects" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">drinking water</a><span> during the recent drought.</span></p><p><span></span><span>Drinking water is also at risk when ecosystems collapse in our water catchments. In Victoria, for example, the degradation of giant </span><a href="https://theconversation.com/logging-must-stop-in-melbournes-biggest-water-supply-catchment-106922" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Mountain Ash forests</a><span> greatly reduces the amount of water flowing through the Thompson catchment, threatening nearly five million people's drinking water in Melbourne.</span></p><p>This is a dire <em data-redactor-tag="em">wake-up</em> call — not just a <em data-redactor-tag="em">warning</em>. Put bluntly, current changes across the continent, and their potential outcomes, pose an existential threat to our survival, and other life we share environments with.</p><p><span>In investigating patterns of collapse, we found most ecosystems experience multiple, concurrent pressures from both global climate change and regional human impacts (such as land clearing). Pressures are often </span><a href="https://besjournals.onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/abs/10.1111/1365-2664.13427" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">additive and extreme</a><span>.</span></p><p>Take the last 11 years in Western Australia as an example.</p><p>In the summer of 2010 and 2011, a <a href="https://theconversation.com/marine-heatwaves-are-getting-hotter-lasting-longer-and-doing-more-damage-95637" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">heatwave</a> spanning more than 300,000 square kilometers ravaged both marine and land ecosystems. The extreme heat devastated forests and woodlands, kelp forests, seagrass meadows and coral reefs. This catastrophe was followed by two cyclones.</p><p>A record-breaking, marine heatwave in late 2019 dealt a further blow. And another marine heatwave is predicted for <a href="https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2020/dec/24/wa-coastline-facing-marine-heatwave-in-early-2021-csiro-predicts" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">this April</a>.</p>
What to Do About It?<p><span>Our brains trust comprises 38 experts from 21 universities, CSIRO and the federal Department of Agriculture Water and Environment. Beyond quantifying and reporting more doom and gloom, we asked the question: what can be done?</span></p><p>We devised a simple but tractable scheme called the 3As:</p><ul><li>Awareness of what is important</li><li>Anticipation of what is coming down the line</li><li>Action to stop the pressures or deal with impacts.</li></ul><p>In our paper, we identify positive actions to help protect or restore ecosystems. Many are already happening. In some cases, ecosystems might be better left to recover by themselves, such as coral after a cyclone.</p><p>In other cases, active human intervention will be required – for example, placing artificial nesting boxes for Carnaby's black cockatoos in areas where old trees have been <a href="https://www.environment.gov.au/biodiversity/threatened/publications/factsheet-carnabys-black-cockatoo-calyptorhynchus-latirostris" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">removed</a>.</p><p><span>"Future-ready" actions are also vital. This includes reinstating </span><a href="https://www.abc.net.au/gardening/factsheets/a-burning-question-fire/12395700" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">cultural burning practices</a><span>, which have </span><a href="https://theconversation.com/australia-you-have-unfinished-business-its-time-to-let-our-fire-people-care-for-this-land-135196" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">multiple values and benefits for Aboriginal communities</a><span> and can help minimize the risk and strength of bushfires.</span></p><p>It might also include replanting banks along the Murray River with species better suited to <a href="https://www.abc.net.au/gardening/factsheets/my-garden-path---matt-hansen/12322978" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">warmer conditions</a>.</p><p>Some actions may be small and localized, but have substantial positive benefits.</p><p>For example, billions of migrating Bogong moths, the main summer food for critically endangered mountain pygmy possums, have not arrived in their typical numbers in Australian alpine regions in recent years. This was further exacerbated by the <a href="https://theconversation.com/six-million-hectares-of-threatened-species-habitat-up-in-smoke-129438" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">2019-20</a> fires. Brilliantly, <a href="https://www.zoo.org.au/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Zoos Victoria</a> anticipated this pressure and developed supplementary food — <a href="https://theconversation.com/looks-like-an-anzac-biscuit-tastes-like-a-protein-bar-bogong-bikkies-help-mountain-pygmy-possums-after-fire-131045" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Bogong bikkies</a>.</p><p><span>Other more challenging, global or large-scale actions must address the </span><a href="https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iICpI9H0GkU&t=34s" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">root cause of environmental threats</a><span>, such as </span><a href="https://www.nature.com/articles/s41559-018-0504-8" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">human population growth and per-capita consumption</a><span> of environmental resources.</span><br></p><p>We must rapidly reduce greenhouse gas emissions to net-zero, remove or suppress invasive species such as <a href="https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/abs/10.1111/mam.12080" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">feral cats</a> and <a href="https://theconversation.com/the-buffel-kerfuffle-how-one-species-quietly-destroys-native-wildlife-and-cultural-sites-in-arid-australia-149456" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">buffel grass</a>, and stop widespread <a href="https://theconversation.com/to-reduce-fire-risk-and-meet-climate-targets-over-300-scientists-call-for-stronger-land-clearing-laws-113172" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">land clearing</a> and other forms of habitat destruction.</p>
Our Lives Depend On It<p>The multiple ecosystem collapses we have documented in Australia are a harbinger for <a href="https://www.iucn.org/news/protected-areas/202102/natures-future-our-future-world-speaks" target="_blank">environments globally</a>.</p><p>The simplicity of the 3As is to show people <em>can</em> do something positive, either at the local level of a landcare group, or at the level of government departments and conservation agencies.</p><p>Our lives and those of our <a href="https://theconversation.com/children-are-our-future-and-the-planets-heres-how-you-can-teach-them-to-take-care-of-it-113759" target="_blank">children</a>, as well as our <a href="https://theconversation.com/taking-care-of-business-the-private-sector-is-waking-up-to-natures-value-153786" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">economies</a>, societies and <a href="https://theconversation.com/to-address-the-ecological-crisis-aboriginal-peoples-must-be-restored-as-custodians-of-country-108594" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">cultures</a>, depend on it.</p><p>We simply cannot afford any further delay.</p><p><em><a rel="noopener noreferrer" href="https://theconversation.com/profiles/dana-m-bergstrom-1008495" target="_blank" style="">Dana M Bergstrom</a> is a principal research scientist at the University of Wollongong. <a rel="noopener noreferrer" href="https://theconversation.com/profiles/euan-ritchie-735" target="_blank" style="">Euan Ritchie</a> is a professor in Wildlife Ecology and Conservation, Centre for Integrative Ecology, School of Life & Environmental Sciences at Deakin University. <a rel="noopener noreferrer" href="https://theconversation.com/profiles/lesley-hughes-5823" target="_blank">Lesley Hughes</a> is a professor at the Department of Biological Sciences at Macquarie University. <a rel="noopener noreferrer" href="https://theconversation.com/profiles/michael-depledge-114659" target="_blank">Michael Depledge</a> is a professor and chair, Environment and Human Health, at the University of Exeter. </em></p><p><em>Disclosure statements: Dana Bergstrom works for the Australian Antarctic Division and is a Visiting Fellow at the University of Wollongong. Her research including fieldwork on Macquarie Island and in Antarctica was supported by the Australian Antarctic Division.</em></p><p><em>Euan Ritchie receives funding from the Australian Research Council, The Australia and Pacific Science Foundation, Australian Geographic, Parks Victoria, Department of Environment, Land, Water and Planning, and the Bushfire and Natural Hazards CRC. Euan Ritchie is a Director (Media Working Group) of the Ecological Society of Australia, and a member of the Australian Mammal Society.</em></p><p><em>Lesley Hughes receives funding from the Australian Research Council. She is a Councillor with the Climate Council of Australia, a member of the Wentworth Group of Concerned Scientists and a Director of WWF-Australia.</em></p><p><em>Michael Depledge does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organization that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.</em></p><p><em>Reposted with permission from <a href="https://theconversation.com/existential-threat-to-our-survival-see-the-19-australian-ecosystems-already-collapsing-154077" target="_blank" style="">The Conversation</a>. </em></p>
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