Your Netflix Habit Probably Isn't Harming The Environment

Image: Netflix

Remember those reports that said the use of streaming services was generating billions of tonnes of carbon dioxide a year? A new analysis of figures suggests that they might have been out of whack – and not by a small proportion.

The original report, coming from Paris-based think tank The Shift Project suggested that the energy needs of all online video sources – including Netflix, YouTube and those videos you watch in your late night binge – weighed in at over 300 million tonnes of carbon dioxide per year.

That's a lot of CO2, somewhere around 1% of total annual global emissions according to the same study. You probably felt quite guilty about your Stranger Things obsession after reading that, right?

You might be able to relax, at least a bit.

An analysis of The Shift Project's figures, written up by French analyst George Kamiya at Carbon Brief strongly challenges the figures used by The Shift Project, suggesting that they're out by a factor of at least 30 times, and maybe as inaccurate as up to 60 times the real world figures.

The Carbon Brief analysis pokes a number of holes in The Shift Project's analysis and assumption of figures, noting that it is around 8 times higher than this study from 2014, but also that referencing it now also fails to take into account modern improvements in data transmission and data centre power usage needs.

The power usage in those Shift Project figures also comes under serious scrutiny:

Looking at electricity consumption alone, the Shift Project figures imply that one hour of Netflix consumes 6.1 kilowatt hours (kWh) of electricity. This is enough to drive a Tesla Model S more than 30km, power an LED lightbulb constantly for a month, or boil a kettle once a day for nearly three months.

With users collectively watching at least 165m hours per day, the Shift Project figures imply that Netflix streaming consumes around 370 terawatt hours (TWh) per year, which would be comfortably more than the annual electricity demand of the UK.

Still not convinced? The Shift Project analysis also works off assuming that all of the Netflix streaming done worldwide was managed at a rate of 24 megabits per second, which is six times higher than Netflix's own global stated averages. Plainly put, most folks – and this won't be news to many Australians stuck on sub-par NBN connections – don't have connections that can maintain those kinds of data rates, which means they're not burning as much power as The Shift Project seems to think.

Carbon Brief's analysis also notes that there's almost certainly a very common data transcription error in The Shift Project's figures, because it's got 3MBps (megabytes) listed in areas where rates would actually be 3Mbps (megabits), further skewing its figures out.

Data centre power usage is also possibly out by between 6 to 17 fold according to the new analysis, although the author is keen to note that they're working off estimates rather than final figures, which is why it's not quite so absolute a matter.

The report notes, for example, that while data centres do contribute to around 1% of the world's power usage, that's a figure that's remained essentially flat since 2015, even as actual data volumes have shot through the roof.

Why have they shot through the roof? At least in part, it's because of streaming video needs, but that further reinforces the point that data centres are substantially more efficient than they used to be.

So what's the takeaway from all of this?

Your use of any electrical device uses energy, and the nature of its creation and transmission does have an environmental effect, for sure. However, there's definitely a need for more nuanced research and data around actual energy usage of streaming, and especially compared to the cost of (for example) travelling to a store to buy a disc or to a cinema to see a film before we can write off streaming entirely as wrecking the planet.

Well, either that, or we all start making our own Bojack Horseman episodes using puppets made of nicely biodegradable potatoes for our families to watch.

[Carbon Brief]

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