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Expanding streaming, its ecological footprint too

Watching your favorite series at home on your computer or in the transport on your laptop is less polluting than a DVD made on the other side of the world and delivered by courier as Netflix did at the beginning? Not so simple, experts say in the face of the streaming explosion.

The situation

Video streaming now accounts for 60.6% of global Internet traffic, according to the latest report (September 2019) from the Canadian company Sandvine, a network equipment specialist. Of this total, Google (with YouTube) represents 12%, Netflix 11.44%.

But if digital broadcasting seems dematerialized, it is not immaterial: terminals, storage and distribution networks, all consume energy.

Or, according to calculations by the Shift Project, a French research group that published a report in July on “the unsustainable use of online video”, the annual equivalent for the sole streaming of CO2 emissions from a country like Spain, or 1% of global emissions.

Video on demand – with its giants Netflix or Amazon and soon Apple or Disney – dominates, accounting for 34% of the total (Shift Project). In equivalent tons of CO2: 102 million, roughly the annual emissions of Chile, the country that hosts the major COP 25 climate conference in December!

Next come pornographic videos, 27% of the total, Internet tubes (21%) and other uses (18%), especially the booming social network video sector.

The problem is

“Digital video is a very large file and grows with each generation of higher definition,” says Gary Cook, who follows the sector for Greenpeace in the United States. Ultra HD, 4K, 8K announced… the manufacturers are competing. But “more data equals more energy to maintain a system ready to stream this video to your device in the second”.

Because streaming is “a set of digital resources mobilized for a customer watching a video”, unlike conventional television where a transmitter waters all spectators, underlines Laurent Lefevre of the Institut national (français) de recherche en sciences du numérique (Inria). This puts a lot of pressure on three axes: terminal equipment, networks and data centres.

Especially since the consumer wants a fast and hiccups-free service. As a result, “everyone is oversizing the equipment, resulting in a waste of resources at all levels,” continues the researcher, who is also deputy director of the CNRS EcoInfo group.

Technical solutions or “rebound effect”?

Hosters and/or broadcasters work a lot on the search for technical improvements, for example for cooling data centers or encoding to make videos less “heavy”.

But specialists warn against the famous “rebound effect”, which means that improvements in the techniques of using a resource actually increase its overall consumption.

“Technological improvement creates new uses and these uses influence products themselves, such as video on social networks that has spread in marketing, notes Maxime Efoui-Hess, author of the Shift Project study.

Not to mention the technophile culture of the unlimited (pipes or content) such as recommendation algorithms or autoplay modes encourage binge watching.

The ecological footprint of streaming should therefore grow exponentially, especially as Internet use is spreading more and more throughout the world.

Avenues for the future-

Since a technological step backwards is excluded, the researchers recommend, in particular, awareness-raising.

For Gary Cook of Greenpeace,”the exercise of collective responsibility, by requiring Internet giants to quickly switch their data centers to renewable energy has been the main driver of change so far.

We can also ensure that consumption has as little impact as possible,” suggests Laurent Lefevre: “The worst thing is to watch on a 3G mobile phone. It’s better to look at home with a fiber optic connection.”

The ShiftProject, which advocates a debate on “digital sobriety”, has put online the “carbonalyser”, an extension of an internet browser that translates your activities on the web into CO2 equivalent. “We must put ourselves in a position to question uses that have not yet been discussed collectively,” says Maxime Efoui-Hess.