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.

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.

Call for work, Second Annual Small FIle Media Festival

Call for work: Second Annual Small File Media Festival, www.smallfile.ca
Submission Deadline: June 4, 2021

Movies don’t have to be big to be bingeworthy! All your favorite genres—cat videos, ASMR, reality TV, nü media formalism, sexual emancipation, animism and more!—look and sound great in a tiny file size that streams without damage to the planet.

Streaming media are calculated to cause over 1% of our global carbon footprint and rising fast. During the coronavirus pandemic, folks bingeing on streaming media consumed untold terawatts of electricity and produced choking megatons of greenhouse gas emissions. Large-file media are killing the planet!

Use your artistic voice to contribute to climate change action and cool down the planet. The SFMF makes HD, 4K, and 5G look unnecessary! Unsexy! So pre-pandemic! Immersion is so overrated! Small-file movies are exquisite, intensive, inexpensive, attractive, creative, and fun. We encourage you to experiment with low-energy technologies and deconstruct the fetishization of the pristine image. Small-file movies are not faithful, they’re promiscuous! <3

The Small File Media Festival will be streamed in lovingly curated programs for 10 days in August 2021 from glorious Vancouver, Canada, on the unceded territories of the Musqueam, Squamish, and Tsleil-Watuth nations, through data centers and networks traversing Indigenous lands worldwide. We will host exciting lo-fi forums on small-file aesthetics and politics. All works will receive a rental fee. Award winners will receive a tiny certificate and the coveted SFMF Micro Bear!

Come join us and celebrate the beauty of the small file!

category 1: 5 Megs of Fun:
File size restricted to 5 megabytes!
Length: up to 5 minutes

category 2: 22 Megs of Trouble:
Our bingeworthy category! A series of 3-8 parts, total file size 22 MB.
Length: up to 22 minutes

For both:
Size to aim for: 1 megabyte per minute
Please record and submit processing/encoding time
Please note the work’s aspect ratio
For aesthetic and technical tips on making small file movies, visit smallfile.ca

Bingeworthy Sports Documentary
Reality TV
Nü Media formalism
Compression aesthetics
Decolonial cosmotechnics Small files love the planet
Youth makers (let’s stop asking young people to save the planet!)
Animation ASMR
Cooking shows
Cat videos Sexual emancipation
Oceanic sound design and small-file beats
Supersmall files (how low can you go!)
Executable files ‘Obsolete’ technologies New Media Idiocy
Cross-platform works (one version for live screening, another for streaming. Please include one minute excerpt of the live work)
Anything imaginable!

Submit through info@smallfile.ca or visit us at smallfile.ca. You can also copy your movie onto a USB and mail it to us. Great for groups! Send to Small File Media Festival, SFU School for the Contemporary Arts, 149 W. Hastings St., Vancouver, BC V6B 1H4, Canada. We will return your USB.

Questions? Contact us at