Netflix on your mind tonight?
Indeed, that happens to be quite a wonted way to de-stress yourself especially after a gruelling day at work. In fact, a significant proportion of people across the world, whether they live alone or not, prefer to kick back and catch up on the TV series or movies of their choice on such video-streaming platforms. However, you may want to read this article before you sit and binge-watch Stranger Things, The Boys, Watchmen or your favourite episodes, the next time. As of today, there is no denying the insane escalation of the digital video-streaming industry, but the truth is, while you are chilling out and enjoying your binge-worthy shows on Netflix, Amazon Prime Video, Hotstar or even YouTube, all of these platforms concurrently have a chilling footprint on the environment.
Do digital streaming platforms cause carbon emissions?
Given that streaming videos and digital content online have become an integral part of our daily lives, we may sometimes, as individuals wonder what the hoopla is all about. For you, an individual, it may be just about one picture or one video, but, if you were to think beyond and consider the streaming patterns of the rest of the world collectively, the aggregate traffic on the internet would beget immense pressure on the environment. The reason is quite elementary, as explicated by the French non-profit enterprise, The Shift Project. Computers, smartphones or other such devices require electricity, which in turn, is produced largely across the world using fossil fuels. This eventually plays a significant role in the generation of hazardous greenhouse gases. For instance, if you were to watch a one-hour show of ‘Breaking Bad’ on Netflix, it would influence emissions tantamount to 3.2 kilogrammes of carbon dioxide, which is practically the same as driving around for 12.6 kilometres. Interestingly, worldwide data-transfer along with its allied technologies, contributes to roughly 4% of global carbon emissions, as opposed to the aviation industry, which is accountable for contributing approximately 2.5%.
Given the current levels of addictive video transfer and consumption, such web-based streaming service providers would consume as high as 20% of the world’s electricity by 2030 (Andrae & Edler, 2015). The year 2018 witnessed global emissions amounting to 300 MtCO2 emanating from online video traffic, which is parallel to the annual carbon emissions by countries such as Kazakhstan (322 MtCO2), France (338 MtCO2) and Italy (338 MtCO2) in that year.
In a 2018 research report published by CISCO, it has been estimated that approximately three-fifth of the global population shall have access to the internet and online resources by 2022. Four-fifth of the aggregate global internet traffic shall comprise of online videos, be it on-demand subscription-based video services, pornographic platforms or other tube videos.
Does screen size and resolution matter?
With the skyrocketing number of smartphones, tablets, smart TVs, and other ultra-HD devices retailed across the world, the mindset of users has also transformed dramatically. Gone are the days when users would rationally phase their data usage on a fortnightly or monthly basis. With rampant access to Wi-Fi, coupled with the rapidly magnifying screen size across devices, the ability to access high-definition videos has become ridiculously effortless, thereby warranting heftier file sizes of the videos being streamed. In 2019, the global average for screen size across all devices (smartphones, tablets and TVs) is approximately 9.7 inches. In South Korea, the average screen size of TVs has expanded to 54 inches in 2019 from 44.5 inches in 2010. The average screen size of LCD TVs in the US has almost doubled from 23 inches in 1998 to 47 inches in 2018. In India, 85% of the consumers prefer to procure TVs in the size bracket of 32 to 43-inches, with the 26-inch TV size almost completely losing its market. The resolution of these TV screens has also transformed from traditional HD-screens to 4K resolution as well as 8K resolution screens. The 4K resolution TVs consume 30% more power than HD TV-screens, due to the use of brighter backlights and heavy processing power, while the 8K resolution TV screens consume around 45% more power than 4K screens. With a host of new players such as Apple TV, Disney Plus, HBO Max, NBC Universal making headway into the online streaming marketplace, more data, and consequently, more energy shall be required to develop a sustainable model that has the capacity to stream HD, 4K or 8K resolution videos to the preferred devices of users instantaneously.
Is there a mounting pressure on data centres?
On-demand video content providers such as Netflix, Amazon Prime or YouTube maintain a colossal repository of their virtually boundless high-definition digital data on massive servers and data centres across various parts of the world, which is then transmitted to the miscellany of devices used by global consumers. As consumer demand and dependence on such services amplify, additional servers would be demanded to preserve the data streaming on the internet, which would warrant even further energy consumption. Presently, these data centres are indispensable in the storage, assimilation and management of data, with an excess of 175 zettabytes of data requirement being projected by 2025. The resolution of a video is directly proportional to the amount of data that is necessitated for consumption. Such services do not merely reflect in the form of hefty data plans for users, but, from an environmental standpoint, they happen to consume vast amounts of energy as well. Since most of the prominent data centres are located in humid or temperate conditions, they entail enormous amounts of energy to prevent them from overheating. At present, such data centres consume roughly 2% of global electricity (approximately 198 TWh) annually, and it is projected to escalate to 8% (792 TWh) by 2030. They also account for about 20 crore tons of carbon dioxide annually. Furthermore, according to a report by the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), there are around one crore comatose servers, which operates at a mere 10-15 percent capacity, and consumes as much electricity as is generated by around eight sizeable power plants.
So, what can data centres do to handle such surging carbon emission rates? Techniques such as automated tiered storage, data compression, data deduplication etc. can be used to moderate the prerequisites of data storage. Further, the massive costs of cooling can be curtailed by banking on natural conditions and using renewable energy sources rather than depending on air-conditioned and power-driven refrigerated environments. Lessons can be derived from IT giants such as Microsoft and Google that have recently developed innovative energy-efficient data centres in Finland, due to the extensive accessibility to renewable energy sources.
Are there any solutions?
Writing this article makes me appear like the Grinch who despises Christmas. The idea is not to ban digital streaming services, of course, but instead, to ruminate on how individuals can curtail the ecological impact of binge-watching their favourite shows on such platforms in the future. Solutions exist both at the micro-level as well as in the macro-level. At the micro level, the least people can do is to deactivate the auto-play option to arrest superfluous consumption. Further, videos can be streamed in a lower definition format on smartphones and tablets, rather than opting for the highest resolution. If this poses a challenge to the user, it can be practiced at least thrice a week, which when multiplied with the million users across the world, can result in significant data as well as energy savings. Further, using Wi-Fi consumes considerably less energy than using a 4G or 4G Volte mobile network. It is also recommended that the Wi-Fi at home be switched off when not in use, especially since round-the-clock usage corresponds to substantial ingestion of energy. Accessing content on a smartphone is apparently more energy-efficient in contrast to that on a laptop or a TV. Finally, users need to clean their digital habitat, in that, their viewing practices be justified. Do you really need to watch the online content? Are you sure you’re not blankly streaming a TV series online merely to kill time? At the macro-level, the idea of innovative and sustainable data centres has already been considered. Additionally, governments can focus on popularising and commercialising data transfer through fibre-optic cables that use light to transmit digital signals. Germany is known to access the internet by making use of copper cables that minimizes rudimentary transmission loss resulting in frequent buffering of videos. Edge computing can also be used to conserve bandwidth. Overall, a collective initiative is called for, from both individuals as well as organisations and governments, to mitigate the impact on the environment due to binge-watching of digital content.