Your Netflix binge-watching makes climate change worse, say experts

Streaming services generate surprisingly high emissions, find experts.

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  • Increasing numbers are watching video on streaming services, requiring more and more energy.
  • The emissions generated by watching a half hour of Netflix is the same as from driving almost 4 miles.
  • Data centers consume much of the energy from streaming.

It would seem that going out to a Blockbuster of old would have left a sizable carbon footprint, with all the driving, clunky tapes and packaging. But while it may seem more environmentally friendly, expert say your modern-day rental experience of binge-watching Netflix possibly contributes even more to climate change.

Apparently, watching a half-hour show would cause emissions equivalent to 1.6 kg of carbon dioxide, explained Maxime Efoui-Hess of the French think tank the Shift Project. That's also like driving 3.9 miles (6.28 km). You probably didn't have to drive that far for your VHS fix.

Taken in total over last year, online video streaming services generated as much in emissions as the country of Spain. And that amount is expected to double, predicts the Shift Project.

Which services produce most of this? 34% of all online traffic is related to streaming Netflix, Hulu, Amazon Prime and similar. Tellingly, after all the big streaming providers, the next largest sector of streaming videos comes from online porn.

Gary Cook of Greenpeace, which works to monitor the energy footprint of the IT sector, said: "Digital videos come in very large file sizes and (are) getting bigger with each new generation of higher definition video."

Processing more data to stream videos to your device "at a moment's notice" requires more energy that is consumed by the data centers, Cook explained to AFP.

A paper in Nature found such centers to add 0.3% to overall carbon emissions. This and related numbers are expected to increase as way more streaming is on the way. Disney and Apple are launching such services. Online videos are projected to end up accounting for 80% of all internet traffic by 2022, estimates the CISCO Network.

According to another projection, this one by Anders Andrae of Huawei Technologies, data centers are likely to consume up to 4.1% of electricity around the globe by 2030. Not to be outdone, home television sets have been increasing in size, going from an average of 22 inches in 1997 to 50 inches in 2021. And technology advances don't necessarily mean the products are getting environmentally friendlier – 4K screens use 30% more energy than HD screens, reported the Natural Resources Defense Council.

What can we do to stem this tide of energy being increasingly gobbled up by our video needs? Cook recommends a starting point would be for consumers to demand that internet giants switch the data centers to renewable energy.

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