Tackling the Carbon Footprint of Streaming Media

This one-year project is funded through the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada's program "Living within the Earth's Carrying Capacity.
With co-investigator Dr.
Stephen Makonin (SFU Engineering), research associate Dr. Radek Przedpełski, and PhD student Alejandro Rodriguez-Silva (SFU Engineering), we are surveying the engineering literature on the carbon footprint of streaming media in order to translate engineering findings into accessible terms, identify gaps in the research, and make policy recommendations.
With Sophia Biedka (SFU Film BFA alumna) and Joey Malbon (SFU MA in Contemporary Arts) we are programming the
First Annual Small-File Media Festival.

my article "Streaming video, a surprising link between pandemic and climate crisis"

It's part of a collaboration between the Journal of Visual Culture and the Hard Farocki Institute on responses to COVID-19. Here's the link

SCMS roundtable, Let’s Deal with the Environmental Impacts of Streaming Video

The Society for Cinema and Media Studies annual conference was canceled, but on April 4 we held this roundtable online as part of the Environmental Interest Group. Thanks to Anne Pasek, postdoctoral fellow in Transitions in Energy, Culture, and Society at University of Alberta,
for organizing the event:

  • Laura Marks (Simon Fraser University) “Streaming media’s carbon footprint: 1% of global CO2 emissions and rising!”
  • Joseph Clark (Simon Fraser University) “Material Pasts and Futures in the Newsreel Archive”
  • Jason Livingston (University at Buffalo) “An App for Tracking Streaming Energy Use?”
  • Denise Oleksijczuk (Simon Fraser University) “From Electrosensitivity to 5G”
  • Lucas Hilderbrand (UC Irvine) “Teaching Challenges and Imperatives of Streaming”

Some highlights:
I pointed out that digital technologies in total emit 4% of greenhouse gas emissions—this could reach 8% by 2025. Half of that, or 4%, is data traffic. Increasing by >25%/year. 80% of that is video. In 2018, online video was responsible for 1% of greenhouse gas emissions, porn = 0.2% (The Shift Project)

Joe Clark surveyed best archival media site practices. He gave the figure that 10 minutes hi-res streaming = 1 load laundry (calculation based on from David Costenaro and Anthony Duer, EnerNOC Utility Solutions, “The Megawatts behind Your Megabytes: Going from Data-Center to Desktop”)
Jason Livingston’s brilliant
video features a Snapchat polarbear asking reproachfully, “What are you doing to the planet man? What are you doing?”
Denise Oleksijczuk pointed out that 3% of the population are electrosensitive, and they are “canaries in the coal mine” for the dangers of electromagnetic frequencies. She argued we should all be using wired connections, which use less energy and do not crowd the air with EMF. Denise pointed out many people have felt tired all their lives, because of EMF bombardment, and suggested we try sleeping in a Faraday cage for a couple weeks to see if you feel better.
Lucas Hilderbrand pointed to the pressure on us educators to use streaming in education, and the connivance of cinephilia and high energy consumption. He suggested our teaching should include a streaming impact statement, as we include Indigenous land acknowledgements. Lucas suggested we insist on in-class tangible screenings—the carbon footprint of streaming media being a great argument for collective screening experience. Lucas' suggestions for low-electricity remote teaching included sharing downloadable, audio-narrated slides instead of video.

In the lively discussion, we all agreed that this is a good time to issue a manifesto on streaming less (maybe with the slogan “Stream less, stream better”?). Optimistically, I like to think we are at peak streaming media, because even if the numbers increase, streaming is ceasing to be a mindless activity, and streaming in high resolution is losing its appeal. So last decade! As Joe pointed out, there’s a pleasure of reduced stimulus in self-isolation.

Anne Pasek pointed out we should avoid a virtuous class divide between “good” and “bad” streamers and instead embrace a politics of pleasure, on the model of the Green New Deal.
I completely agree: I believe low-resolution, small-file media are attractive, “pull” media (McLuhan), haptic media (Marks) “sticky” (Alfred Gell). We want to grab them and pull them close, for example on small devices. Jason noted that small-gauge media like home movies create a intimate experience, and Lucas pointed out most young people prefer to watch movies on the small screen: it’s an opportunity to shift expectations. Small media are sexy!

We are drafting a Best Practices guide for teaching, pedagogy, programming and media making with a small carbon footprint, to circulate to SCMS members and anyone else. We will be publishing our provocations at Media+Environment.

Call for work, Small File Media Festival

Call for work: First Annual Small File Media Festival
Updated version
Submission Deadline: May 30, 2020

What do cat videos, facial recognition and compression algorithms all have in common? You can find them at the first annual Small File Media Festival!

The coronavirus pandemic is showing us how dependent people are on streaming media. Streaming media currently is responsible for about 1% of our global carbon footprint, almost a third of that from pornography streaming alone, and rising fast. That’s a lot of coal for cat videos, Netflix, and porn!

Use your artistic voice to contribute to climate change action and cool down the planet. We make HD, 4K, and 5G look unnecessary, unsexy, and so last decade. Small files are intellectual, innovative, attractive, creative, and fun. We encourage the exploration of experimental processes through low energy technologies to deconstruct the fetishization of the pristine image.

If we can get together physically, the Small File Media Festival will be held August 10-12 in the beautiful cinema at Simon Fraser University in glorious Vancouver, Canada, and streamed in curated programs of tiny files. Selected works will be screened live and receive a rental fee. We will be featuring an “obsolete” media viewing platform for submissions with alternative technologies, and an anti-facial-recognition fashion show and workshops alongside the festival. Additionally, all accepted works will have the option of being curated and streamed online through energy conscious means.

If we can’t get together physically, we’ll stream curated programs of tiny files.

Come join us and celebrate the beauty of the small file!
Submit through info@smallfile.ca or visit us at

File size restricted to 5 megabytes of fun! Size to aim for:
1 megabyte per minute Length: 1-5 minutes Must record/submit processing/encoding time
Looping media welcomed

Aesthetic Invention Supersmall files (how low can you go!)
Narrative Documentary Porn Sports Cat videos Animation GIFs ‘Obsolete’ technologies Pre and post-apocalyptic media
Cross-platform works
(one version for live screening, another for streaming. Please include one minute excerpt of the live work)
Anything Imaginable!

For tips on making small files, visit

Coronavirus shows need for small-file media

Because so many people are streaming media during the Coronavirus crisis, and under pressure from European Union Commissioner Thierry Breton, YouTube has followed Netflix Europe in the decision to restrict quality to standard definition. It's great because it sets a precedent for enjoying non-HD movies. Thanks to fellow small-filer Jason Livingston for this.


Guidelines coming soon for the First Annual Small-File Media Festival!