Streaming Carbon Footprint

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 80% of electricity comes from fossil fuels, this means that ICT is responsible for 2.7% to 3.3% of global greenhouse gases (Lorincz et al. 2019, Belkhir & Elmeligi 2018).

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.

The team

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
     

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

Upcoming Workshops

Small File Media Aesthetics & Politics
Presented by VIVO Media Art Centre
9 hours over 3 sessions | Online
March 20 & 27 & April 3, 2021
$94 / $58 for members / by donation for those facing reduced income due to COVID-19

  • Session 1: Sat., Mar. 20 | 10:00 AM – 1:00 PM
  • Session 2: Sat., Mar. 27 | 10:00 AM – 1:00 PM
  • Session 3: Sat., Apr. 3 | 10:00 AM – 1:00 PM

TICKETS HERE

Small File Media Aesthetics & Politics
SFU School for the Contemporary Arts
Date & Time: TBA
Please check back

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!

Carbon footprint calculators

The French think tank The Shift Project has extensive calculators that you can download via the document "Lean ICT Materials" HERE.

Marks, Makonin, and Rodriguez-Silva, in order to verify The Shift Project's results, are working on an independent streaming carbon footprint calculator. Here's what we have so far:

Calculating the carbon footprint of a streaming program (in our article in Media + Environment):

    Length of the streaming video in hours x gigabytes per hour for a given resolution (Summerson 2018)*:
        480 pixels: ~792 MB/hour
        720p: ~1.3 GB/hour
        1080p: ~1.9-2.55 GB/hour (average 2.225)
        1440p: ~2.8 GB/hour
        4K: ~3.5-7 GB/hour
    x energy intensity: 4.91 kWh/GB (see above)
    x number of unique viewers
    x 0.707 kgCO2e/kWh: Environmental Protection Agency 2020)
    = carbon footprint in kilograms of CO2e (CO2 and other greenhouse gases).

    * Summerson uses Netflix’s streaming bitrate. Note that Netflix is more energy efficient than other platforms.

Updated: February, 2021.

Joseph Clark’s energy intensity calculator (in our article in Media + Environment):

Multiply file size in gigabytes by 5 kWh/GB to get energy in kilowatts.

Example: Streaming a high resolution copy of a 10 minute newsreel (500MB) is about 2.5 kWh. That, according to the owner’s manual for Joe’s clothes dryer, is about the equivalent of drying one load of laundry.

Events

February 9: Marks, with Makonin and Rodriguez-Silva, will talk about our research in IT Engineering.

March 9: Przedpełski, with Marks, will talk about the Small File Media Festival as part of Anne Pasek's (Trent U.) Low-Carbon Methods series. More info HERE.

March 23 – 25: The team will talk about our interdisciplinary method at the New Materialist Informatics conference, Kassel. More info HERE.

April 2: Marks, small-file program and talk for Colgate University, Colgate, NY.

April 6: Marks, keynote talk, "Streaming Media, Online Conferences, and the Jevons Paradox," at the British Association for American Studies online conference. More info HERE.

Some of our publications

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

References

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