Why did the International Energy Association attack The Shift Project?

The French carbon-transition The Shift Project (TSP) developed an impressive and exhaustive calculator for the carbon footprint of streaming media, first published in 2018 and updated in 2019. TSP’s calculations that streaming media is responsible for 1% of global greenhouse gas emissions made a splash in popular media, with coverage by the BBC, The Guardian, the New York Post, CBC, Gizmodo, and other news agencies. It quickly drew a rebuttal from George Kamiya, an analyst for the International Energy Agency, which is oddly ungenerous in tone.

With some justification, Kamiya criticizes the science behind The Shift Project’s model. But otherwise his article, available on the IEA website and widely popularized, deploys language, charts, and hyperlinks intended to downplay the carbon footprint of ICT and discredit The Shift Project in the eyes of a layperson.

First, Kamiya focuses on Netflix, not all streaming video as TSP does. Netflix is unusually energy efficient. As its content is hosted on content distribution networks near the end user, it does not have to travel through multiple networks. Second, Kamiya cites a 2014 study stating that streaming video’s energy usage from data centres constitutes “<1% of the total video streaming energy use,” because streaming uses not data centres but servers, “cloud-based IT equipment.”* This is simple wordplay, perhaps exploiting the light and fluffy connotations of the term. Cloud servers are data centres, more efficient because they respond to demand. Elsewhere Kamiya states that “energy efficiency of data centres and networks is improving rapidly,” with an ungrammatical hyperlink under “networks is improving rapidly” to an article about the electricity efficiency of the Internet (Aslan et al., 2017). However, that article excludes data centres from the Internet’s system boundary.

But the article’s mean-spirited character really comes to the fore when Kamiya takes advantage of the spoken error a member of The Shift Project made in an interview—”megabits” instead of “megabytes.” Based on this verbal error, Kamiya multiplied all TSP’s calculations by eight—even though the bitrate error only affects calculations for devices—and produced a chart that makes them look ridiculous. Months later Kamiya published a chart with the corrected figure.

After trashing TSP and citing a few ICT engineers who are most sanguine that the energy usage ICT is under control, Kamiya takes a more thoughtful tone, echoing the concerns of these same engineers that energy efficiency will soon run its course. By the end of the article, the IEA analyst is reiterating TSP’s recommendations. But by that point most readers will have already stopped reading. Now, a search on DuckDuckGo for "The Shift Project" and "streaming video" shows that IEA’s strategies have succeeded in muddying the waters.

TSP
responded graciously to Kamiya’s critique, considering each of his points in turn.

So why did the International Energy Agency, the planet’s most influential voice on energy policy, so determined to demolish this little French think tank? Why does it need to reassure the public that the energy consumption of ICT is not a concern? The organization advises governments and the private sector on energy policy, but it also represents the interests of energy producers worldwide. Its public media emphasize that ICT companies are investing in renewable energy—but hold back the fact that these renewables are usually complementing, not replacing, energy sources powered by cheap fossil fuel, as the demand on ICT continues to rise. The IEA’s estimation of the worldwide energy consumption of data centres at 194 TWh in 2017 is very low compared to almost all reputable estimates, for example from GreenIT.fr, World Borderstep Institute, and Greenpeace. As the environmental research organization Oil Change International
explains, the IEA’s model of continued fossil fuel extraction, gradual conversion to renewable energy, and reliance on unproven technologies like carbon capture is designed to intoxicate investors. In fact, “Emissions under the IEA’s alternative “Sustainable Development Scenario” (SDS) would exhaust the 1.5-degree Celsius carbon budget by 2023 and the 2-degree budget by 2040.”

*That study (Shehabi et al., 2014), comparing the environmental impact of DVDs and streaming, warned that the rebound effects of streaming in greater numbers of hours and higher resolution would overtake the initial environmental benefit of streaming.

Our team at Tackling the Carbon Footprint of Streaming Media is working on a survey of calculators for the carbon footprint of streaming media. We'll be sharing our findings in May 2021.