How Streaming Affects The Environment
Streaming is a central part of the world today. Indeed, some predict that, driven by customer preferences, traditional “broadcast” – transmitted – services will, sooner or later, be rendered obsolete as the perception is that streaming is more convenient: any time, any place, any device.
Set against this, though, are growing concerns that there is a significant downside to streaming: its environmental impact. Television transmitters may require powers in the tens of kilowatts, and be barely 20% efficient in converting input power to useful transmission. But once you broadcast a signal, it does not matter if one person is watching or 10 million: there is no impact.
How streaming works
Streaming is a one-to-one service. Essentially, the consumer sends a request to the provider, who responds with the programme, delivered over a content delivery network and the internet. That means the streamed signal passes through a number of nodes, each with routers and servers, all requiring their own power.
Each time someone else logs on to watch that same content, exactly the same process happens, with exactly the same power demands and consequent carbon footprint. So the environmental impact scales linearly with the number of concurrent views.
The environmental impact of streaming
What is that impact? Here the statistics get very muddied. To take just two respected organisations, The Shift Project says that the CO2 equivalent of an hour of streaming is 36g; The Carbon Trust says it is 55g. Netflix admits responsibility for 450,000 megawatt hours of energy consumption annually, with a carbon footprint of 1.5 million tonnes.
The best estimates seem to be that the whole of the internet is responsible for 3% of global carbon emissions. That is about the same as the aviation industry. Video represents 80% or more of internet traffic today, so the sustainability of streaming is an issue.
How we can help
But now is not the time to throw up our hands in horror. There are mitigating circumstances, and things we can all do to reduce the footprint.
First, there are a couple of points to bear in mind. Production represents a very large part of the environmental footprint, and that remains the same however the finished programme gets to the audience. Netflix’s own report suggests that 58% of its carbon footprint is represented by production. Efforts like the Albert programme and its equivalent in other territories are having a real impact on making television production sustainable.
Second, as much as 90% of the carbon footprint in streaming is represented by the end-user device (according to The Carbon Trust). Encouraging consumers to purchase and use more energy-efficient devices has the potential to make a difference.
How else could we reduce power consumption? One way might be to change audience perceptions of just how quickly content on demand should arrive.
Skilled watchers will understand that the length of time they have to watch the spinning cursor before the programme starts tells them whether the content has to be called from the organisation’s headquarters or from an edge server, and how fine-grained the edge server network is. But running an extensive range of data servers to provide that instant response is a large draw on power: server farms consume pretty much the same amount of energy for disk arrays and air conditioning whether they are delivering content or not.
The use of the cloud may reduce the footprint, just because of the economies of scale that we associate with cloud providers. It is in their best interests to maximise the utilisation of their servers and networks, minimising the individual costs and power consumption.
How streaming businesses are reacting
AWS commissioned 451 Research (part of S&P Global Market Intelligence) to look into this, and found that businesses in Europe can reduce energy use by nearly 80% by using AWS rather than their own data centres. When AWS reaches its goal of 100% renewable energy (which it aims to achieve by 2025) it could potentially reduce carbon emissions by up to 95%.
But even this is still far from clear-cut. Other initiatives have unpredictable results, too. You might look to reduce streaming costs by reducing bandwidth, but that calls for more processing power at the encoder (and possibly at the decoder).
There is a new industry organisation which links businesses at every stage of the streaming industry, called Greening of Streaming. By bringing together the best thinkers, its intention is as its name suggests: to make streaming more green.
But its founder and driving force Dom Robinson is very honest about the nature of the challenge. “The practical reality is that actually not even the industry knows what is going on at the moment,” he wrote recently. “Efforts to understand the issue in depth have only emerged in the past three or four years. Companies have come up with reporting models that have noble intent to reduce the environmental impact, but all too often they are isolated and do not take a fully systemic view.”
In simple terms, this is a very complicated situation, and it is not even immediately clear what we should be measuring to know how to improve. “One thing is clear,” according to Robinson: “there is no consensus yet what needles we are trying to read.”
What is the takeaway? Streaming is here to stay, so we have to find ways to make it as sustainable as possible. And, at last, through Greening of Streaming, we may have a body which is working to at least define the issues so we know where to direct our efforts.