Quantcast

Dizzying Increase in Video Streaming Becoming Major Source of Global Carbon Emissions

Popular

By Richard Sadler

The Internet is fast becoming a major source of global carbon emissions—and the main cause is video demand, the increasing popularity of "real time" streamed video content.

Video streaming to Internet-enabled TVs, game consoles and mobile devices already accounts for more than 60 percent of all data traffic—and the latest forecasts suggest this will rise to more than 80 percent by 2020.

Facebook's Prineville data center in Oregon: Demand just keeps on growing.Tom Raftery / Flickr

Increasingly, viewers across the world are watching films and TV series in real time through subscriptions to Netflix or Amazon, while social media platforms such as Facebook and Twitter are offering more and more streamed video content for free.

This is driving a dizzying increase in the amount of information that needs to be stored and transmitted by power-hungry data centers. Up until 2003 the world had accumulated a total of five exabytes—five billion gigabytes—of stored digital content. By 2015 that amount was being consumed every two days, as annual consumption reached 870 exabytes.

As more video is streamed and more of the world's population goes online, annual data traffic is forecast to reach 2,300 exabytes by 2019.

Pressure for Renewables

The IT sector already consumes around 7 percent of electricity worldwide and as data traffic rises, demand from data centers alone could reach 13 percent of global electricity consumption by 2030.

Now leading video content providers are coming under increasing pressure to show what proportion of their power derives from fossil fuels.

A recent report by Greenpeace USA acknowledges that social media platform Facebook has made significant progress towards its target for 100 percent of its electricity to come from renewables, following support from millions of its users for Greenpeace's 2011 "Unfriend coal" campaign. Google and Apple receive praise for progress towards similar commitments made in 2012.

However, major providers of video streaming content including Netflix, Amazon Prime and Hulu are criticized for sourcing more than half of their energy from coal or natural gas.

Cloud computing market leader Amazon Web Services is credited for taking important steps towards renewables but censured for lack of transparency and heavy reliance on new data centers in the state of Virginia powered mainly by fossil fuels.

Elsewhere the lack of access to renewable energy from monopoly utilities in East Asia is seen as a major obstacle towards creating a renewably-powered Internet in the region.

The report concludes: "The dramatic increase in the number of data centers … dominated by utilities that have little to no renewable energy is driving a similarly dramatic increase in the consumption of coal and natural gas."

Attempting to express the effect of increasing Internet traffic in terms of emissions is fraught with difficulty, but one study, published in the journal Environmental Research Letters, has calculated that in 2011 Americans streamed 3.2 billion hours of video.

This would have consumed 25 petajoules of energy (estimated at about the annual consumption of 175,000 U.S. households), resulting in 1.3 billion kilograms of CO2 emissions.

Efficiency Limits

The lead author, Arman Shehabi, a research scientist at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory in California, said the IT sector had so far managed to offset its soaring electricity needs by designing more energy-efficient data centers. But there was a limit to how far energy efficiency could go.

"The growth in video streaming is enormous just based on the size of the companies that are providing these services—but they are still reaching only a small part of the global population and we can imagine that's going to just keep increasing," he said.

"You're still going to have this growth of more and more servers needed. We've seen some good efficiency measures but we're getting close to the end of that—we can't go out much further—and with video streaming there's no end in sight."

He added that another major driver of future growth in data traffic would be the Internet of Things—remote digital sensors, devices and driverless cars connected to the Internet.

Richard Sadler, a former BBC environment correspondent, is a freelance environment and science journalist. Reposted with permission from our media associate Climate News Network.

EcoWatch Daily Newsletter

Pixabay

By Claire L. Jarvis

A ruckus over biofuels has been brewing in Iowa.

Read More Show Less
Serena and Venus Williams have been known to follow a vegan diet. Edwin Martinez / Flickr / CC BY 2.0

By Whitney E. Akers

  • "The Game Changers" is a new documentary on Netflix that posits a vegan diet can improve athletic performance in professional athletes.

  • Limited studies available show that the type of diet — plant-based or omnivorous — doesn't give you an athletic advantage.

  • We talked to experts about what diet is the best for athletic performance.

Packed with record-setting athletes displaying cut physiques and explosive power, "The Game Changers," a new documentary on Netflix, has a clear message: Vegan is best.

Read More Show Less
Sponsored
An illegally trafficked tiger skull and pelt. Ryan Moehring / USFWS

By John R. Platt

When it comes to solving problems related to wildlife trade, there are an awful lot of "sticky widgets."

Read More Show Less
Pexels

By Franziska Spritzler, RD, CDE

Inflammation can be both good and bad.

On one hand, it helps your body defend itself from infection and injury. On the other hand, chronic inflammation can lead to weight gain and disease.

Read More Show Less
Pexels

By Dan Nosowitz

It's no secret that the past few years have been disastrous for the American farming industry.

Read More Show Less
Sponsored
Pexels

By Gavin Van De Walle, MS, RD

Medium-chain triglyceride (MCT) oil and coconut oil are fats that have risen in popularity alongside the ketogenic, or keto, diet.

Read More Show Less
Pexels

By Bijal Trivedi

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) released a report on Nov. 13 that describes a list of microorganisms that have become resistant to antibiotics and pose a serious threat to public health. Each year these so-called superbugs cause more than 2.8 million infections in the U.S. and kill more than 35,000 people.

Read More Show Less
Rool Paap / Flickr / CC BY 2.0

By Franziska Spritzler, RD, CDE

Inflammation can be good or bad depending on the situation.

Read More Show Less