Streaming media's carbon footprint

The carbon footprint of streaming media is the elephant in environmentalism's room. Streaming refers to viewing or listening online to media content such as video on demand (e.g. Netflix, Amazon, Crave), porn, YouTube, games, online archives, music, video conferencing, and virtual and augmented reality. Although information and communication technology (ICT) is hoped to lower the energy usage and carbon footprint of other sectors, the energy for both the production and use of ICT (servers, networks, data centers, terminals) is using an increasingly disproportionate part of electricity. Current predictions show that these impacts will continue to rise unless extremely energy-efficient measures are put in place globally (Lorincz et al. 2019; The Shift Project, 2019, Andrae 2017). In a worst-case scenario, streaming media could be responsible for as much as 20.5% of greenhouse gas emissions in 2030 (Andrae 2017).

The main reason for this huge carbon footprint is that fossil fuels power many sites and hubs of streaming media. For example, South Korea is one of the most wired countries in the world, and its largest energy source is coal (Greenpeace 2017). In the US, data centres concentrated in Virginia, North Carolina, and the Pacific Northwest use cheap power primarily derived from coal, even though they have plenty of hydro (Fehrenbacher 2012, Greenpeace 2017).

"Demand"* for higher image quality (such as 4K and 8K or 4000 and 8000-pixel 3D video) requires more bandwidth for data transfer, increasing the energy consumption of streaming video, and more antenna technology. Wireless media like mobile phones currently use a combination of second-, third-, and fourth-generation (2G, 3G, 4G) technology. Now 5G is being hyped to increase data capacity and speed up the rate of data transfer.

Researchers do not agree about the energy usage of 5G. A popular 2015 study on electricity usage of wireless networks by Andrae and Edler (2015) predicts that between 2020 and 2030, in the expected-case scenario, 4G and 5G use will climb from 40 to 70 and from nil to 91 terawatt hours (TWH) respectively. In the worst case, 4G use will rise to 917 TWH and 5G will spike to 1,648 TWH. The main variables for these enormous discrepancies are mobile data traffic, energy intensity, and improvement in energy efficiency. Thus, if demand for large streaming files increases and efficiency does not increase enough, the planet will explode in a ball of flames. However, other researchers argue that 5G’s energy usage can be minimized, for example by switching off base stations outside peak hours (Alsharif et al. 2019, Popescu 2018).

What can media users, media makers, scholars, citizens, engineers, and governments do about this massive threat to our planet? A lot of things! See the next post.

*"Demand" is in quotes because people's sudden desire to receive streaming media on devices is a first-class example of a manufactured need, pushed by media corporations and telecoms in order to sell more product and make the older ones obsolete.