Each week we take a look with EV specialist and Innovation Origins columnist Auke Hoekstra at what caught his eye on topical issues or what he runs into where the preservation of our planet is concerned. This week: is streaming bad for the environment?

Sometimes you get press releases which you don’t quite know what to do with. Last week this email arrived with a heading in huge capitals:

Netflix &…COVID-19: The environmental impact of your favourite shows.

The message comes from a content agency somewhere in the UK and writes about a ‘study’ carried out by safeenergy.com. A comparison site for gas and electricity in the United States and England. This site compares the CO2 emissions from streaming popular Netflix shows with the emissions from driving and flying. At first glance, it appears that streaming emits a lot more than car driving does if you look at the figures.

The comparison shows that Birdbox ( the most popular Netflix show in the US between October 2018 and September 2019) was viewed 80 million times in the United States. That’s equivalent to more than 146 million miles (or 234 million kilometers) by car and amounts to a total emission of more than 66 million kilograms of CO2. To put this number in ‘context’: that’s almost equal to driving back and forth almost 40 thousand times from London to Istanbul. At least, according to the website.

Hall of shame

So now, in addition to driving and flying, streaming also joins driving and flying in the hall of shame. But how did this site arrive at these figures? They base the CO2 emissions of streaming on research from 2014. This states that you emit about 200 grams of CO2 when streaming a 30 minute video. And with regard to the CO2 emissions of cars, the website bases its findings on a statement by Inês Azevedo, university lecturer at Stanford University – half an hour’s driving is good for around 1.8 kg of CO2.

Let’s see what debunker Auke thinks of this: “When you look at these figures in that light, you might think: ‘oh no, Netflixing is bad. We shouldn’t do that anymore!’ But what they are doing here is actually quite lame. All those 80 million viewers are equivalent to one person driving that much. It gives the wrong impression. Because this makes it sound as if anyone who watches a show on Netflix is really capable of driving so many kilometers. As if streaming has a huge impact. Whereas if you calculate it per person, it’s not that bad.”

According to him, this site isn’t comparing apples with other apples: “If you include the sources of the research, you can already tell. To put it simply: streaming emits 400 grams of CO2 per hour. Driving a car emits about 2.5 kg of CO2 per hour and flying emits sixty times more in an hour than just an hour of netflixing. You could also say that instead of an hour of netflixing, you could fly for one minute. That immediately offers a whole different picture.”

Power consumption of appliances times energy mix

The fact that times can quickly change is clearly shown by the research that was used as a source. This is where the CO2 emissions from streaming are set against the life cycle of DVDs. (In 2012, rented DVDs still accounted for 42% of the market, compared to 25% for Netflix). “The research says that netflixing requires less energy and raw materials than the manufacture and distribution of DVDs. Energy consumption in data centers is also negligible. It’s mainly about what kind of appliances people watch on. How high is their power consumption? And what about the electricity mix?”

The switch to streaming is, according to Auke, different from what these figures would have you believe. As a matter of fact, they’re quite the success story. “First we had cinemas. You have to heat those big buildings and there’s special equipment that uses a lot of power. What’s more – and this is the biggest cause of pollution – people have to travel there too. Then we switched to DVDs, which you once again needed raw materials for plus those discs had to be delivered. So you can also say that it’s a source of pollution too. But when it comes to streaming, you just send a lot of data through a bunch of cables. That step only leads to decarbonization.”

To illustrate how much travel has an impact on CO2 emissions, Auke talks about calculations he made for De Kuip stadium and the Johan Cruijff Arena in the Netherlands “I then went on to calculate exactly what a stadium like those use. Then you see that a large part of the costs in the Arena are due to the grass. Because of the roof, the turf doesn’t get enough sunlight, so it has to be illuminated. However, heating pumps that are basically always on consume a lot of energy as well. Also, a large part of the audience travels by car. All these calculations show that 10 to 20 % of visitors account for all of the emissions of these kinds of stadiums.”

CO2 emissions can be as much as 10 times lower

And that decarbonization from streaming, how about that? “If we use more and more wind and solar energy in the future, the CO2 emissions from streaming will decrease. In Europe, the carbon density of the electricity mix has dropped about 9 grams per year in recent years. Imagine if you and all those data companies all switch to sustainable energy over the next few years, then emissions could be 10 times lower. That means that one hour of netflixing just emits 40 grams of CO2. As much as driving for 1 minute or flying for 5 seconds.”

But what about the cooling systems in data centers? For a moment it’s quiet on the other side of the line, then Auke forwards a study. “Here you see that despite rising internet traffic, data centers’ levels of efficiency apparently increase to such an extent that this doesn’t lead to a great deal of extra energy consumption.”

“Above all, let’s encourage the use of renewable energy. But let’s not – especially in this period – all of a sudden act as if virtual or digital activities are suddenly bad for the environment.”