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. The Covid-19 pandemic is accelerating this crisis, as people are stuck at home and seeking 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 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 full report. It's a gripping mystery story set in the labyrinthine world of ICT engineering! Includes recommendations for consumers, telecoms, governments, and more.
Laura U. Marks, SFU School for the Contemporary Arts
Radek Przedpełski, postdoctoral fellow, SFU School for the Contemporary Arts
Alejandro Rodriguez-Silva, PhD student, SFU School of Engineering Science
- 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
The First Annual Small File Media Festival (August 10-20, 2020), featuring movies under 5 megabytes each, showed that great cinema doesn’t have to mean great big files! We received over 100 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:
- Laura U. Marks, founder
- Sophia Biedka, festival organizer, independent filmmaker
- Joey Malbon, festival organizer, media activist
- Radek Przedpełski, postdoctoral fellow, School for the Contemporary Arts
- Faune Ybarra, visual artist
- Sanjana Karthik, activist and high-school student
Azadeh Emadi, Entangled Orb (Glasgow, 2020, 5:07, 4.8 MB, 8:00 processing time)
Small File Media Festival Youth Video Contest
We invite young makers who care about the environment to make small-file videos. Why small files? Because streaming video is responsible for 1% of global greenhouse gas emissions! That’s because the data centres, networks, and devices we rely on for streaming are mostly powered by fossil fuels. The Small File Media Festival celebrates videos of under 5 megabytes that show movies don’t have to be big HD files to be beautiful and inspiring.
Visit smallfile.ca for application criteria and instructions.
We've prepared a collection of downloadable Best Practices PDFs for helping to manage your online carbon footprint.
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!
Laura U. Marks and Radek Przedpełski, “Bandwidth Imperialism and Small-File Media,” in Post-45, special issue on “New Filmic Geographies” ed. Suzanne Enzerink (2020)
Laura U. Marks, Joseph Clark, Jason Livingston, Denise Oleksijczuk, and Lucas Hilderbrand, “Streaming Media’s Environmental Impact,” Media + Environment.
Laura U. Marks, “Small-File Movies: Saving the planet, one pixel at a time.” Millennium Film Journal 71/72 (December 2020).
Laura U. Marks and Stephen Makonin, “Streaming video is overheating the planet.” Op-ed, The Vancouver Sun. August 15, 2020.
Yani Kong, “Tiny movies at the end of the world,” SFU School for the Contemporary Arts.
Radek Przedpełski, “The environmental cost of binge-watching,” Science Gallery, Dublin.
Laura U. Marks, “Let’s Deal with the Carbon Footprint of Streaming Media,” Afterimage 47:2 (2020): 46-52.
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 (April 2020)
Our research is partially funded by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council’s program Living within the Earth's Carrying Capacity
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