Streaming's Carbon Footprint: `Very Small’ Netflix Funded Study Reports

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(Image credit: Netflix)

LONDON—A new white paper published by the Carbon Trust estimates the average carbon footprint of one hour of on-demand video streaming in Europe in 2020 is “at an individual level...very small compared to other everyday activities."

They conclude that "the average carbon footprint in Europe per hour of video streaming is approximately 55gCO2e, equivalent to boiling an average electric kettle three times.”

The Carbon Trust, which is well respected independent organization with a mission to accelerate the move to a sustainable, low carbon economy, noted that it embarked on the study, which was funded by Netflix, to improve the understanding of the carbon emissions associated with video streaming at a time of high demand for video streaming, but little consensus of video streaming’s impact on the climate.

The white paper highlights many of the complexities in making that determination.

The analysis showed that the viewing device is typically responsible for the largest part (more than 50%) of the overall carbon footprint. 

For example, the footprint (related specifically to the energy use of the viewing device) of watching on a 50-inch TV is shown to be roughly 4.5 times that of watching on a laptop, and roughly 90 times that of watching on a smartphone, the researchers reported. 

End-user viewing devices are also becoming more energy efficient due to a mix of technology advances, regulation and standards  regarding stand-by power and maximum power thresholds.

Those advances have allowed television displays to consume less energy per surface area, so that they are more energy efficient, which in turn offsets the continued growth of average TV panel sizes. 

Additionally, changes in video quality, due to different viewing resolutions and settings – like changing from high-definition to standard-definition – affect the bitrate required to transmit video data. But those changes in video quality were found to have only a very small change in the carbon impact, the research concluded.

“Our white paper shows that the carbon footprint of watching an hour of streamed video content is minor compared with other daily activities,” noted Andie Stephens, associate director at the Carbon Trust and lead author of the white paper. “As the electricity grids continue to decarbonize, and telecoms network operators increasingly power their networks with renewable electricity this impact is set to reduce even further. By undertaking this research with the support of the industry and academic experts, we hope to help inform discussions about the carbon impact of video streaming and of wider ICT use, and address some misunderstandings and outdated estimates that have been previously reported.”

Other studies, however, have found the impact much larger when viewed in terms of the volume of streaming around the world.

In March of last year, research conducted by SaveonEnergy found that the energy generated from 80 million views of ‘Birdbox’ is the equivalent of driving more than 146 million miles and emitting over 66 million kg of carbon dioxide (CO2) and that the energy produced from 73 million streams of ‘Murder Mystery’, translates to driving over 104 million miles and generating greater than 47 million kg of CO2. 

George Winslow

George Winslow is the senior content producer for TV Tech. He has written about the television, media and technology industries for nearly 30 years for such publications as Broadcasting & Cable, Multichannel News and TV Tech. Over the years, he has edited a number of magazines, including Multichannel News International and World Screen, and moderated panels at such major industry events as NAB and MIP TV. He has published two books and dozens of encyclopedia articles on such subjects as the media, New York City history and economics.