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Tackling the Carbon Footprint of Streaming Media

Streaming media is calculated to contribute a surprising 1% of global greenhouse gases, because most regions of the world obtain electricity from fossil fuels to power their data centers, networks, and devices. Streaming large files in large quantities, then, ethically implicates spectators in the warming of the planet. Bad news — but we have some solutions!

Our research addresses the high and rising electricity consumption of  information and communication technologies (ICT), which consume as much as 7% of global electricity (Andrae 2020). Given that globally about 79% of electricity comes from fossil fuels, this means that ICT is responsible for 3.3% to 3.8% of global greenhouse gases (Belkhir and Elmeligi 2018, Cisco 2020b, Bordage 2019).

Streaming media  – video on demand (e.g. Netflix, Crave), porn, YouTube, games, video conferencing, etc. – contributes more than any other sector to this increase (Cisco 2020). People are streaming video at higher volumes and higher definition, and media and telecom corporations cheerfully encourage us to do so for entertainment and relief. Meanwhile, what we might call “streaming impact denial” plays into the notion that online media are “virtual” and do not impact the environment.

Unchecked, the carbon emissions resulting from ICT could exceed 14% of the 2016-level worldwide GHGE by 2040 (Belkhir & Elmeligi 2018, The Shift Project 2019). It is urgent to immediately reduce that figure, and the rising share of streaming media, through education and policy changes.

Our Research Findings

Our research project, supported by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada Knowledge Synthesis grant program, “Living within the Earth’s Carrying Capacity," is complete. Please read the evidence brief and download the PDF of the full report. It's a gripping mystery story set in the labyrinthine world of ICT engineering! Includes recommendations for consumers, telecoms, governments, and more.

ICT engineers have strong agreement about the electricity consumption of streaming video. Their findings confirm The Shift Project's estimate that streaming video is responsible for over 1% of global greenhouse gas emissions and growing fast.

The team

Laura U. Marks, SFU School for the Contemporary Arts

Stephen Makonin, SFU School of Engineering Science | Principal Investigator of the SFU Computational Sustainability Lab

Radek Przedpełski, postdoctoral fellow, SFU School for the Contemporary Arts

Alejandro Rodriguez-Silva, PhD student, SFU School of Engineering Science

Our group is on it!

We:

  • Critically assess engineering research on the environmental impact of ICT and streaming media, identify the most reliable results, and develop streaming media energy usage and carbon footprint calculator
  • Measure the electricity consumption involved in streaming media through case studies in British Columbia, and produce tools to accurately calculate its carbon footprint
  • Inform policymakers of the most promising policies and practices at governmental, institutional, and individual levels
  • Adhere to an open, reproducible science philosophy
  • Advocate alternatives to HD streaming, on fronts including carbon taxes for streaming services; simple alternatives like watching television and borrowing DVDs; and low-bandwidth streaming media
  • Teach media makers how to make small-file videos, with technical and aesthetic tips
  • Share the beauties of appropriate technology through the Small File Media Festival
     
Laura U. Marks, Joey Malbon, and Faune Ybarra (left to right) at the closing event for SFMF 2022.

Small File Media Festival

The Small File Media Festival, featuring movies under 5 megabytes each, shows that great cinema doesn’t have to mean great big files! Every year we receive scores of submissions from around the world, with ingenious creative solutions including animation, GIFs, low frame rates, datamoshing, executable files, “obsolete” technologies, and creative compression. More info at smallfile.ca.

The Small File Media Festival team is:

  • Sophia Biedka – independent filmmaker
  • Kim Cleroux – filmmaker and SFU undergrad
  • Mena El Shazly – multimedia artist and SFU grad student
  • Joey Malbon – media artist, musician, and activist
  • Laura U. Marks – festival founder and SFU professor
  • Radek Przedpełski – Dublin-based scholar and artist
  • Faune Ybarra – visual artist and SCA alumnus

Past Festivals

Small File Media Festival 2022
August 8 – 14, 2022 | Djavad Mowafaghian Cinema, Djavad Mowafaghian World Art Centre & SCA Media Lab (GCA Room 2345)
SFU Goldcorp Centre for the Arts, 149 W. Hastings St., Vancouver

More HERE ~

Small File Media Festival 2021
August 10 – 20, 2021 | Online 

More HERE ~

Small File Media Festival 2020
August 10 – 20, 2020 | Online

More HERE ~

Carbon footprint of online teaching

This year, PhD student Yani Kong, with Marks, is working with SFU's IT department to analyze the carbon footprint of online teaching. Check back here for updates about this project!

Events

Workshop at Pacific AIDS Network on best practices for organizations
Thursday, May 27, 2021 | 10:00 – 11:00 AM (PST)
Watch the video archive below ~

Streaming carbon footprint publications, talks, and media appearances

Our research is partially funded by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council’s program Living within the Earth's Carrying Capacity

Publications

  • 2022/3 – Dawn Walker and Yani Kong, “Reimagining Networks: Speculative Thinking for Low-Carbon Research Networks,” Low-Carbon Research Methods, Ed. Pasek, Anne, London, UK: Goldsmiths College, Forthcoming.
  • 2022 – Stephen Makonin, Laura U. Marks, Radek Przedpełski, Ramy El Mallah, Alejandro Rodriguez-Silva, “A Holistic End-To-End Model to Calculate the Carbon Footprint of Streaming Media,” LIMITS ‘22. Read HERE.
  • 2022 – Laura U. Marks and Radek Przedpełski, “The Carbon Footprint of Streaming Media: Problems, Calculations, Solutions,” in Film and TV Production in the Era of Accelerated Climate Change, ed. Pietari Kääpä and Hunter Vaughan (Basingstoke: Palgrave, forthcoming).
  • 2022 – Laura U. Marks, “Large-File Streaming: An Unsustainable Pleasure,” in What Film Is Good For, ed. Julian Hanich and Martin Rossouw (Berkeley: University of California Press, forthcoming)
  • 2021 – Laura U. Marks, “A Survey of ICT Engineering Research Confirms Streaming Media’s Carbon Footprint,” Media + Environment. Read HERE.
  • 2021 – Laura U. Marks, Stephen Makonin, Alejandro Rodriguez-Silva, and Radek Przedpełski. Final report, Tackling the Carbon Footprint of Streaming Media, SSHRC Knowledge Synthesis grant. 58 pages.
  • 2021 – Laura U. Marks and Radek Przedpełski, “Bandwidth Imperialism and Small-File Media,” in Post-45, special issue on “New Filmic Geographies” ed. Suzanne Enzerink. Read HERE.
  • 2021 – Yani Kong, “The Digital Turn: Keeping Art Accessible in a Time of Crisis,” Galleries West, December 2021. Read HERE.
  • 2020 – Laura U. Marks, Joseph Clark, Jason Livingston, Denise Oleksijczuk, Lucas Hilderbrand, “Streaming Media’s Environmental Impact,” Media + Environment. Read HERE.
  • 2020 – Laura U. Marks, “Small-File Movies: Saving the planet, one pixel at a time,” Millennium Film Journal 71/72 (Spring/Fall): 94-101.
  • 2020 – Laura U. Marks, “Streaming video, a surprising link between pandemic and climate crisis,” Journal of Visual Culture and Harun Farocki Institut special issue on Covid-19. Read HERE.
  • 2020 – Laura U. Marks, “Let’s Deal with the Carbon Footprint of Streaming Media,” Afterimage 47:2, 46-52. Read HERE.
  • 2020 – Yani Kong, “Tiny movies at the end of the world,” SFU School for the Contemporary Arts. Read HERE.
  • 2020 – Radek Przedpełski, “The environmental cost of binge-watching,” Science Gallery, Dublin. Read HERE.

Panels, roundtables, symposia, and talks

  • 2022 – Azadeh Emadi, Joseph Malbon, Laura U. Marks, and Radek Przedpełski, “Bending the possible (one pixel at a time): Small-file ecomedia for the Anthropocene,” pre-recorded panel, ISEA 2022. Watch a compressed recording HERE.
  • 2022 – Laura U. Marks and Radek Przedpełski, “Small-File as Ahuman Life.  Sustainable Experimental Ecomedia for the Anthropocene,” plenary talk at Life Infinite: Immanence, Inflection, Indeterminacy, fifth Deleuze and Guattari Studies in India conference. November 13. By videoconference.
  • 2022 – Yani Kong, “Examining the Carbon Footprint of Streaming Media in Online Teaching and Learning,” Pacific Institute of Climate Science, University of Victoria, Video Conference, February 2022. 
  • 2021 – Laura U. Marks and Radek Przedpełski, “A Contribution to the Critique of the Carbon Footprint of Streaming Media. Earth’s Carrying Capacity as a Regime of Capital in the Postdigital Age.” Talk on the panel “Capital, Nature, Infrastructure” at the conference Many Regimes of Capital in the Postdigital Age, University of Warsaw. October 20. By videoconference.
  • 2021 – Yani Kong (chair), Laura U. Marks, Radek Przedpełski, and Hân Phạm, roundtable, “Immaterial Material: The Carbon Footprint of Online Teaching and Learning,” UAAC, October 22. By videoconference.
  • 2021 – Laura U. Marks and Stephen Makonin, "Let's Get Together with a Small Carbon Footprint," talk for Pacific AIDS Network on best practices for organizations. May 27. By videoconference. Watch a compressed recording HERE.
  • 2021 – Laura U. Marks and Radek Przedpełski, “Tackling the Carbon Footprint of Streaming Media: A Transdisciplinary Laboratory for New Media Informatics.” New Materialist Informatics 2021. March 24. By videoconference.
  • 2021 – Laura U. Marks, “Streaming media populate the ether and heat the planet,” talk on the panel “Expanded Environments II,” Society for Cinema and Media Studies. March 21. By videoconference.
  • 2021 – Yani Kong, “Pushing Against the Substitution Effect: Best Practices for Carbon Neutral Streaming in Remote Teaching and Learning,” Burnaby Festival of Learning, Vancouver, BC, April 2021.
  • 2020 – Laura U. Marks, Joseph Clark, Jason Livingston, and Lucas Hilderbrand, “Let’s Tackle the Carbon Footprint of Streaming Media.” Roundtable. Society for Cinema and Media Studies. April 4. Videoconference organized by SCMS’ Environmental Special Interest Group.

Laura U. Marks lectures

  • 2022 – A talk on the panel “On Greening Film Festivals” organized by Ger Zielinski. Society for Cinema Studies, April 3, 2022. By videoconference. Download the presentation PDF HERE.
  • 2022 – A talk on the panel "Compression politics and aesthetics: Mitigating the carbon footprint of streaming media” organized by Marek Jancovic and Judith Keilbach. NECS (European Network for Cinema and Media Studies). Bucharest, June 22, 2022. By videoconference. Download the presentation PDF HERE.
  • 2021 – “Tackling the Carbon Footprint of Streaming Media,” in the Sustainability Dialogue series organized by Kevin Lee. Merz Akademie, Stuttgart. November 30. By videoconference.
  • 2021 – “The Small File Media Festival,” talk to the Animation; Experiment collective, hosted by New Media Society, Tehran. April 29. By videoconference.
  • 2021 – “Streaming Media, Online Conferences, and the Jevons Paradox,” keynote talk, British Association for American Studies, April 6. By videoconference.
  • 2020 – “Seeing in the dark,” keynote talk at “Dark Eden,” Sixth International Conference on Transdisciplinary Imaging at the Intersections between Art, Science, and Culture. November 6. By videoconference.
  • 2020 – “The Small File Media Festival,” keynote talk at NxtMedia 2020, Trondheim, Norway. By videoconference.

Interviews and media

  • 2022 – Laura U. Marks, “Ask an Online Media Expert: What’s the Carbon Footprint of the Internet?”, told to Alex Tesar, The Walrus, June. Page 66
  • 2022 – Laura U. Marks, interview on carbon impact of streaming media with Carolina de Ryk, Daybreak North, CBC radio, Prince Rupert, BC. June 17
  • 2022 – Laura U. Marks, “Is Our Netflix Obsession Harming the Planet? This Is the Environmental Impact of Streaming,” podcast interview with Stephanie Osmanski, Brightly.eco. Listen HERE.
  • 2021 – Laura U. Marks, “Media Genealogies and Haptic Geographies,” interview in Alex Estorick’s series “The Uncanny Valley,” Flash Art, October 12. Read HERE.
  • 2021 – Laura U. Marks, interview with Michael Hedges on the carbon footprint of streaming media, British Association for American Studies 2021 Annual Conference. June 30. Read HERE.
  • 2021 – “Cinema, touch, and the climate movement with Laura U. Marks,” interview on Roz Skillen’s podcast Catch Yerself On. March. Listen HERE.
  • 2020 – Laura U. Marks and Stephen Makonin, “Streaming video is overheating the planet.” Op-ed, The Vancouver Sun. August 15. Read HERE.
  • 2020 – Laura U. Marks, interview with CBC’s Gloria Macarenko on the carbon impact of streaming media and the Small File Media Festival. August 10.

Research projects

2022 – Yani Kong, Laura U. Marks, and Stefan Smulovitz, “Examining the Carbon Footprint of Streaming Media in Online Teaching and Learning,” Living Lab Initiative, SFU Sustainability, Vancouver, BC, January 2022.

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