Streaming: Low-impact luxury or ecological nightamare? | Deloitte Netherlands has been saved
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The act of streaming has become so embedded in our lives that we take for granted what it requires. Providers and consumers have locked each other in an ongoing spiral as their respective desires and offerings perpetually grow. As content provision and consumption reaches epic proportions, spare a thought for what’s not showing up on your screen: CO2 emissions and the rapid depletion of rare earth elements.
Streaming content is a ubiquitous luxury of the age we live in. But, like other gifts of technology, streaming comes at a price beyond the cost of a subscription.
Consuming podcasts, webcasts, films, TV series, games or music on demand requires energy from our devices. But companies are at least as culpable as individuals when it comes to streaming: The servers hosting and storing the content require a staggering amount of power themselves. To enable streaming, a steady stream of carbon dioxide is released into the environment and the earth’s supply of precious metals is drained.
The first step is admitting that truth. The next step? Learning how companies and individuals can tweak their tactics to stream responsibly by exploring virtualisation and other innovations.
Who’s to take the lead?
The companies hosting the content are, of course, responsible for controlling their servers’ emissions. But their capacity to expand infrastructure seemingly knows no limit; their business models eagerly accommodate the public’s desire for vast choices of streamable content, available 24/7 in the highest possible quality.
If that desire means more hardware and data centres must be built, and more data transmitted, it’s just common (business) sense for them to grab the business opportunity and expand. To be fair to the providers, through continued technology innovations and efficiency gains, some manage to limit the increase of emissions to a relatively small percentage1.
But in recent years, up to 80 per cent of our daily data use has relied on only a few companies, such as Netflix, YouTube, Facebook and game companies Epic Games (“Fortnite”) and Activision Blizzard (“Call of Duty”)2. Those companies must answer their own call of duty where the environment is concerned, and have made some improvements in network efficiency and data centres3.
There’s far more work to be done for technology companies and social-media platforms, which should be seeking new ways to become more efficient in handling data: lower bit rates, compression techniques, CDN catching, just-in-time packaging…the choices are out there4. It’s just a matter of research and implementation.
Companies can even be doing more to account for the burden falling on users’ shoulders, fuelled by the steady growth of their demands, devices and Internet transmission5. Even if individuals are driving the cycle of higher refresh rates and sharper pictures – though it is a chicken-vs-egg scenario – there’s no denying that improving quality is used to increase market share and revenue. So, should providers be doing more to offset our intensifying streaming behaviour? Should they be educating us on the consequence of our consumption? Or should they offer us, the consumers, the option to choose more environmentally friendly versions of their services?
Facing facts: Where we can save resources
At the moment, those are ethical questions open to debate. But the facts are not. One streaming hour is thought to generate about 100 grams of CO2 equivalent, so 12 hours adds up to 1.200 grams of CO2 equivalent per day: comparable to driving three miles or charging 146 smartphones6.
That figure may not sound like a lot, but multiply it7 by the colossal 183.000.000.000 minutes streamed in the US in the last week of December 2021, and you start to see the real impact: 3 million kg of CO2 equivalent in a week. A good way to bring that number down is to use the right caching techniques (e.g. CDN caching, just-in-time packaging), which reduces bandwidth requirements and only processes content when it’s needed by users8.
Your viewing device needs to be considered, as well: It’s apparently the biggest contributor to your overall streaming carbon footprint9. If you stream on older devices, they’re less energy efficient. If you stream on a TV, you’re using more energy than a phone or a laptop. If you play a high-quality game on a laptop that struggles to meet the streaming requirements, your battery is going to drain quickly. Meaning you’ll charge it (requiring energy, releasing toxins).
Of course, there are many more low-hanging fruits. Use WiFi for streaming, as it’s more efficient than 5G. Aim to store content on a local device if you want to consume it multiple times. Don’t download content you probably won’t consume. And enjoy content with family and friends so that only one of you is streaming it.
Streaming for the greater good
If there were a break in the streaming cycle – such as if users’ content consumption dropped, or they started to prefer greener suppliers – there would be an eventual effect on distributers. After all, supply can only outweigh demand for so long before someone changes the business model again. But there are actually very solid, eco-friendly reasons to choose sensible streaming over other options. The key is to take stock of your choices about what to stream, which device to use and how much is too much.
To stream or not to stream? And what’s the most sustainable way to stream? These are questions Deloitte supports clients with. By carefully optimising content and infrastructure, we’ve reduced one of our clients’ website’s footprint by over 90 per cent. We’re committed to helping our clients create a sustainable future, and will work with you to evaluate your technology use, finding ways to minimise your environmental impact. Our goal is to build awareness of IT’s negative effects that are often ignored, empowering you to make balanced decisions that leave a small carbon footprint. Eric Onderdelinden
1Ericsson, “Here’s what you need to know about carbon emissions in the ICT sector”, February 4, 2020, https://www.ericsson.com/en/news/2020/1/digital-carbon-footprint, last accessed December 5, 2022.
2Mark Sweney, “Streaming’s dirty secret: How viewing Netflix top 10 creates vast quantity of CO2”, The Guardian, 29 October 2021,
https://www.theguardian.com/tv-and-radio/2021/oct/29/streamings-dirty-secret-how-viewing-netflix-top-10-creates-vast-quantity-of-co2, last accessed December 5, 2022.
4Sreejata Basu, “Steps to sustainability in broadcasting and video streaming”, Muvi, March 17, 2022,https://www.muvi.com/blogs/sustainability-in-broadcasting-and-video-streaming.html, last accessed 5 December 2022.
5Emma Stewart, PhD, “Net zero + nature: Our commitment to the environment”, Netflix, March 30, 2021, https://about.netflix.com/en/news/net-zero-nature-our-climate-commitment, last accessed December 5, 2022.
6Brightly, “Is our obsession with Netflix, Spotify, and other streaming services harming the planet?”, March 23, 2022, https://brightly.eco/environmental-impact-streaming/, last accessed December 5, 2022.
7Sandra Pattison, “35 streaming services statistics you need to know in 2022”, Cloudwards, https://www.cloudwards.net/streaming-services-statistics/, last accessed December 5, 2022.
8Sreejata Basu, “Steps to sustainability in broadcasting and video streaming”, Muvi, March 17, 2022, https://www.muvi.com/blogs/sustainability-in-broadcasting-and-video-streaming.html, last accessed December 5, 2022.
9Carbon Trust, “Carbon impact of video streaming”, June 2021, https://www.carbontrust.com/our-work-and-impact/guides-reports-and-tools/carbon-impact-of-video-streaming, last accessed December 5, 2022.
I'm a very experienced enterprise architect and lead the Enterprise Architecture offering within the Netherlands. I'm specialized in Enterprise Architecture with a focus on the private sector. Besides in depth knowledge of Industrial processes and products I bring a wealth of experience in data and technology , including cloud services and desired agility, to the table. Recent assignments include pre-merger assessment and post merger integration. I work on project dealing with application portfolio rationalization, business case development and TCO. I publish on a regular basis in IT and business magazines. I support companies worldwide with the establishment and maturing of their EA practice. I'm a teacher in the master class enterprise architecture organized by the NAF. Besides that I'm a memebr of the board for Platfrom Digitale Wendbaarheid. Currently I'm working on a PhD concerning the value contribution of IS in M&A.