As video on demand has become the go-to way to watch TV and film, the amount of internet traffic taken up by streaming services has dramatically increased. Climate News Network stated, in 2017, that “Video streaming to internet-enabled TVs, game consoles and mobile devices already accounts for more than 60% of all data traffic – and the latest forecasts suggest this will rise to more than 80% by 2020”. Netflix, alone, has been reported to account for over 30% of internet traffic in the US and 20% worldwide.
So what impact does all this have on climate change?
The real issue is with data centres. Data centres are the large collections of computer servers required for companies to store, process or distribute large amounts of data. They require a huge amount of energy to operate. Some have predicted that data centres could account for 13% of global energy demand by 2030.5 If companies do not commit to powering these centres using renewable sources of energy, then this could significantly drive up demand for fossil fuels.
Greenpeace’s 2017 Clicking Clean report annually evaluates the environmental performance of tech companies and puts pressure on them to use renewables.
Greenpeace’s Clicking Clean rating
Rating for environmental performance by brand
| Renewable Energy Commitment and Sitting Policy
| Energy Efficiency & Mitigation
| Renewable Procurement
In 2015, Netflix made the outrageous claim that watching content on their platform was more energy efficient than breathing. However, the company did not score well in the latest Greenpeace Clicking Clean report which stated “Netflix’s misleading attempt to equate human emissions of CO2 from breathing as somehow equivalent to its energy intensive operations is not reflective of an innovative IT company and has more in common with previous attempts by the fossil fuel industry to shift responsibility for climate change. The reality is that Netflix’s rapid growth is increasing demand for coal and other dirty sources of energy that are a threat to human health and the climate”.
Netflix states that it is focused on efficiency which is, in part, related to the switch from traditional data centre models to cloud computing.
With the old data centre model, a company would create or acquire a data centre which they would have to run at the capacity needed to meet the highest point of demand at all times even if demand was actually highly variable. When a company signs up to a cloud computing service it provides a lot more flexibility as it can pay just for the resources (data, storage, etc.) it uses. Cloud computing has not replaced the existence of data centres themselves, just the way in which companies access and use them. In theory, having one cloud computing service serving the data needs of multiple companies instead of each running their own data centres should be more efficient over all.
However, a number of the companies on our table – Netflix, Disney, More 4, ITV, Apple, Sky’s Now TV and Amazon Prime – all access at least some cloud computing services from one company in particular – Amazon Web Services (AWS), which, as the name suggests, is owned by Amazon. Over the last few years, Greenpeace has been critical of AWS’s lack of transparency when it comes to the energy used in its data centres. Greenpeace’s Gary Cook stated “Amazon continues to talk a good game on renewables but is keeping its customers in the dark on its energy decisions. This is concerning”. Greenpeace says it is particularly concerned by the fact that Amazon is building many of its new data centres in states like Virginia, which are largely powered by coal. While Greenpeace has managed to collect data from Amazon regarding the types of energy used, the organisation strongly criticises AWS for its continued failure to divulge the amount of energy it is using to both the public and its clients. Netflix is bottom of the table below.
Fortunately, the Clicking Clean report has seen some success with pushing other companies – such as Apple and Google – towards 100% renewable powered data centres.
What energy are the companies using to power their data centres?
Streaming TV brands and energy source
| Natural Gas
Options for viewers
Some brands offer the option to pay to download video instead of streaming. In terms of the environmental impact there is no real difference between downloading or streaming video. However, if you are going to watch a video more than once then it is obviously better to download it rather than repeatedly stream it. Having to purchase each video individually may also help curb the temptation to ‘binge watch’ everything available, resulting in less data used and more time for other activities!