Over-engineered infrastructure anticipates expanded consumption

Recently a consensus has developed that it is not feasible to separately parse out the contribution of streaming video to ICT. It is more accurate to measure the power consumption of data centers, networks, and devices separately (see e.g. Hintemann and Hinterholzer 2021, Andrae 2021). It makes sense to calculate the electricity consumption of large actors like YouTube, and to calculate individual consumers’ electricity footprint, including the production energy of their devices, but not to add up all individual consumers’ hours of streaming. Some engineers (e.g. Malmodin 2021; Preist, Schien, and Shabajee 2019) argue that more data, as in streaming video and other data-intensive practices, does not necessarily result in more energy consumption. This is because networks and data centers are running 24/7, regardless of data use. As network engineer Chris Preist explains, ‘With current network technologies, if you send less data along it, in most cases it doesn’t reduce the energy use. It's like an airplane: if you don’t fly, the plane flies anyway, and so “not flying” only reduces emissions if it leads to less airplanes flying in the long term’ (Burgess, 2021).

That’s not good news, though. ICT’s infrastructure of networks and data centers was put in place for data-intensive applications like streaming and computation-intensive applications like AI and blockchain. The infrastructure is engineered to anticipate future use and spur consumer demand. The argument that streaming only slightly increases electricity consumption naturalizes the notion that infrastructure should be over-engineered. It encourages additional high-data (and computation-heavy) use that will require infrastructure to expand still more.

Only slightly decelerated by the pandemic, ICT’s infrastructure of networks, data centres, and devices continued to expand worldwide in anticipation of market growth (Global Market Insights, 2020; Research and Markets, 2020).

The more we use them, the more the infrastructure will expand. Our goal can only be the equivalent of keeping more planes out of the sky: reducing the expansion of ICT. It is crucial to limit consumption, including devices.


Andrae, A. 2021. “New perspectives on internet electricity use in 2030.” Engineering and Applied Science Letters. 30 June.

Burgess, Matt. (2021) "YouTube’s carbon footprint is huge, but smarter web design could fix it." Wired UK, July 5, 2019.

Global Market Insights. (2020) "Telecom Network Infrastructure Market Size, By Component."

Hinterholzer, S., and R. Hintemann. (2020) Videostreaming: Energy Requirements and CO2 Emissions Background Paper: The Most Important Points in a Nutshell.‘ Trans. Stephan Meinke. BorderStep Institute for Innovation and Sustainability.

Malmodin, J. (2021) ‘The power consumption of mobile and fixed network data services: The case of streaming video and downloading large files.’ Unpublished paper.

Preist, C., Schien, D., and P. Shabajee. 2019. "Evaluating Sustainable Interaction Design of Digital Services: The Case of YouTube." In: CHI 2019 - Proceedings of the 2019 CHI Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems. Association for Computing Machinery (ACM), 1-12

Research and Markets. (2020) “Worldwide Server Forecast, 2021-2025.”

Final report, evidence brief, and best practices

Tacking the Carbon Footprint of Streaming Media completed our research this summer. You can find our final report, evidence brief, and best practices recommendations here
We can now corroborate The Shift Project’s analysis that streaming video is responsible for over 1% of greenhouse gas emissions worldwide. Exacerbated by new habits established during the Covid-19 pandemic, that figure is currently estimated at 1.2% to 1.4% and rising fast (Sandvine 2020). We triangulated among ICT engineers’ calculations of streaming video’s electricity intensity, the electricity needed to move one gigabyte of data, and also did Fermi calculations. The research remains contentious, but we are confident that our general findings are correct.
Our literature review played out like a detective story. Throughout the literature, the disparity between figures is enormous. Just like Maxime Efoui-Hess, main author of The Shift Project’s report, we “quickly realized that much of the literature on the subject used figures from previous documents, very often without cross-referencing them with others, and without taking precautions regarding the limits of their validity." This practice leads to error propagation, where the uncertainties of variables multiply.
We observed what appear to be political differences between at least two camps. There are those researchers who insist that ICT’s electricity consumption is remaining flat, while also urging that governments invest in research and infrastructure to deal with the rise when it happens.
We found a great degree of disagreement among ICT engineers about both figures and methods of their calculation. The dissensus largely centers around varying definitions of the system boundary of the Internet and of streaming; that is, whether devices, data centres, production, disposal and mining of metals should be included. The classic definition of the internet is confined to networks: long-haul, local, and consumer. However, in the case of streaming video and other data- and calculation-intensive applications, it is essential to include data centers and servers, including storage. We also side with engineers who argue that devices—smart televisions, TV-top devices, desktop and laptop computers, tablets, and phones—must be included in the system boundary of streaming video, and so must include the electricity required to produce devices and other ICT infrastructure.
Another key finding is that streaming video epitomizes the rebound effect (also known as the Jevons paradox), whereby increased energy efficiency leads to greater consumption of a resource. The engineering literature vigorously debates the rebound effect. Some argue that increases in ICT energy efficiency more than compensate for the acceleration of consumption, while others point to numerous case studies that show that when the production and use of data centers, networks, and devices become more electricity-efficient, demand by companies increases. They pass their savings on to consumers, for example in the form of cheap data plans and cheap devices, but in order to encourage them to consume more. So yes, streaming one video does consume less electricity than driving to the video store. However, the availability of online video has created new consumption patterns, driven by addictive design, which cancel out any energy savings. Streaming video exists within a market-driven feedback loop of infrastructural expansion and consumer demand.
We found that videoconferencing also poses the danger of rebound effects. Currently videoconferencing uses less electricity per minute than streaming video, but only because the companies like Zoom impose low resolution (Obringer et al. 2021) and a slow frame rate. However, as people replace phone calls with video calls and companies like Cisco and Peloton market “immersive” teleconferencing with large, high-resolution screens, new habits consume a lot more energy.
We found that redundancy, or the doubling of power supplies for data centres and networks in anticipation of spikes in demand, is one of the foundations of ICT’s disproportionate carbon footprint. Overpreparedness for worst-case scenarios—where the worst case is not, for example, the failure of the data center in a nuclear power plant, but, for example, the failure to deliver high-resolution streaming movies without lag time—is one of the foundations of ICT’s disproportionate carbon footprint. Data center and network security is predicated on redundancy, the doubling of power supplies (traditionally by diesel generators and battery packs), networks, and other equipment that runs in standby mode to prevent momentary blackouts or system failures (Schomaker, Janacek, and Schlitt, 2015). These dramatically amplify electricity consumption. Horner and Azevedo (2016) point out that, because of the priorities of uptime, reliability, and fulfillment of service agreements, data centers are generally built with extreme redundancy. As Tung-hui Hu suggests, infrastructure “converts an imagined crisis in the future into present capacity."

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

Cryptocurrencies’ carbon footprint

Cryptocurrencies’ carbon footprint

Lots of excitement about the
high price Beeple’s artwork using non-fungible tokens captured at Christie’s. A smart editorial by Michael Connor at Rhizome points out that many artists work with cryptocurrency. Connor minimizes the issue of the huge electrical consumption and consequent carbon footprint of cryptocurrency.

For the bigger picture of cryptocurrencies’ carbon footprint: “A large number of independent studies … calculated that Bitcoin mining alone required about 60 to 70 billion kWh of electrical energy in 2019. If other cryptocurrencies are also included, it can be assumed that 70 to 90 billion kWh/a of electrical energy is currently required for cryptocurrency mining” (Borderstep Institute). Bitcoin is “mined” where energy is cheapest, which in many places means coal (in 2014, 93% of Mongolia’s energy derived from coal--energypedia).
So for a conservative estimate of cryptocurrencies’ carbon footprint, multiply 80 billion KwH by The Shift Project’s global average carbon intensity factor, 0.519 kgCO
2e/kWh. That’s 41,520,000,000 kilograms of CO2 and equivalent greenhouse gases. Converting using the Environmental Protection Agency’s Greenhouse Gas Equivalencies calculator, that’s the carbon equivalent of about 5500 tanker trucks of gasoline. It would take 69 million tree seedlings growing for 10 years to sequester it. Bitcoin artists, get planting!

“Lean ICT Materials,”

Here’s a crypto-art carbon calculator
And Everest Pipkin’s
post “Here Is the Article You Can Send to People When They Say “But the Environmental Issues With Cryptoart Will Be Solved Soon, Right?”
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