Reality check: is your streaming habit hurting the planet?

Click to play video: 'Is your streaming habit hurting the planet?'
Is your streaming habit hurting the planet?
WATCH: Video streaming platforms and online porn account for two thirds of the greenhouse gas emissions from video energy consumption – Aug 31, 2019

When people think of things that worsen the impacts of climate change, they don’t often think of curling up in bed, streaming one episode of TV, then another. And another.

But they should, according to a report released earlier this summer by The Shift Project, a French think tank focused on pushing for a post-carbon economy.

When it comes to digital technology, the electricity required to power data traffic alone — network infrastructures and data centres — accounts for 55 per cent of annual energy consumption, the report says. Within that online video is a hog: it sucks up more data for 10 hours of high-definition video than every single English article — text only — on Wikipedia.

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Between Netflix, Amazon Prime, Hulu, the new Disney+, social media, your laptop, your smartphone, your tablet and maybe even your second or third smartphone, the report is pretty clear: “Intensive use is now made of online video.”

Last year, watching online videos generated more than 300 metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalent. To put that into context, the report’s authors wrote, that’s as much greenhouse gas emitted as the entire country of Spain — population 49,331,076.

The two big video culprits? Video on demand and porn.

The world’s streaming services make up about 34 per cent of online videos watched. Per the report, they’re responsible for nearly 0.3 per cent of global emissions, which is on par with Chile’s total country emissions. Porn videos make up the second largest share, creating nearly 0.2 per cent of global emissions. Streaming platforms like YouTube account for 21 per cent, while the remaining 18 per cent comes from social media videos on Facebook, Instagram, Tik Tok and Snapchat.

Despite this, Maxime Efoui-Hess, an engineer and the report’s main author, wrote, “a large share of public opinion, as well as that of economic and political spheres, still presumes that the uses of digital technology do not require the same vigilance as other sectors regarding their compatibility with energy and climatic imperatives.”

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So while most people acknowledge that reducing the threat of climate change requires reducing global greenhouse gas emissions, most people haven’t shifted gears yet to examine all the electricity they use staying plugged in.

The Shift Project argues they should.

After all, it says the energy consumption required to fuel digital technology is moving up, not down — growing nine per cent every year.

Electricity generation is really what this is all about, says Jennifer Winter, an economics professor at the University of Calgary and scientific director of its energy and environmental policy research division.

“It’s not just how much are we streaming Netflix or how much are we using a smartphone,” she says, “it’s about where are we getting our electricity, what are the emissions associated with that.”

That isn’t something Canadians typically concern themselves with, Winter says. After all, “Canada is blessed with a lot of natural resources… energy is cheap in Canada and that makes it easy to consume a lot and use a lot.”

And Canadians do. The most recent report on emissions showed that Canada’s production of greenhouse gases actually grew by eight million tonnes from 2016 to 2017.

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There are very few blackouts, most people don’t have to ration access to a plug to power up their phone (some even have portable batteries). That ease of use, she says, “of course, encourages more use.”

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Electricity is very much “out of sight, out of mind,” says Gary Cook, senior IT sector analyst at Greenpeace USA. And while he isn’t advocating that you stop watching your shows altogether, Cook is recommending you push for accountability at a company level.

“On the good news side, we’ve seen a number of companies who have made long-term commitments to renewables and have followed up to their commitments,” he says.

Google, for instance, has a “long-term aspiration of sourcing carbon-free energy on a truly 24×7 basis” and published an update on its progress in October 2018. Per that update, the company managed to shift to mostly carbon-free wind energy at its data centre in Finland, and was making similar progress at its data centre in North Carolina.

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Unfortunately, Cook says, some companies like Amazon “started that journey, then stopped.”

Greenpeace released a report in February alleging Amazon had abandoned plans to fund its data centres with renewable energy only because of its “dramatic expansion in Virginia over the past two years without any additional supply of renewable energy.” Amazon responded with a press release saying Greenpeace used “inaccurate data” and the company remained committed to its 100 per cent renewable energy goal.

Per Greenpeace’s calculations, Facebook had reached 37 per cent renewable energy in Virginia, Microsoft hit 34 per cent and both Google and Digital Realty were at four per cent.

While Cook doesn’t want to discount the importance of individual action (“you should definitely be aware that your online footprint has a significant energy impact”), he says people should really push companies to use renewable energy sources.

“Companies listen to their customers,” he says.

“It’s important that individuals tell whatever platform they’re using or internet company that they care about climate change and they want to know their use of the service is not causing climate change.”

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Cook expects regulation will become increasingly important as more people “pull back the curtain” on the carbon footprint of their digital lives. The technology sector as a whole consumes roughly seven per cent of the world’s electricity, an estimate that Greenpeace expects to reach as high as 20 per cent by 2025.

“A first step is lowering the emission profile of electricity generation,” says Winter.

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That could mean anything from carbon capture and storage to carbon taxes to incentivizing policies that make solar and wind better financial bets for companies.

After that, it’s a question of consumption, she says — what do we value? And how much do we need versus want?

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“It’s really hard to have a conversation about, ‘we have too much stuff’ and ‘we’re using too much energy,’” Winter says. “It’s a very normative concept and these moral questions tend to be very, very contentious.”

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And yet, if you ask Efoui-Hess and his colleagues at The Shift Project, it’s no longer a conversation people can avoid having.

“The climate crisis and the planet’s finite raw resources require that we reduce our greenhouse gas emissions, and our consumption of energy and raw materials. In a world confronted by such limitations, not choosing between uses will lead to the random imposition of constraints,” their report says.

“Not choosing means potentially allowing pornography to mechanically limit the bandwidth available for telemedicine, or allow the use of Netflix to limit access to Wikipedia…

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“It is not a question of being ‘for’ or ‘against’ pornography, telemedicine, Netflix or emails: the challenge is to avoid a use deemed precious from being impaired by the excessive consumption of another use deemed less essential.”

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