The huge computer farms needed by Google, Amazon, and other large tech companies using the internet are facts of life. When one of these companies sets up solar energy supplies to produce the needed energy, people say “yay you.” But what most of us don’t consider is that the reason they need those huge complexes is that the ultimate users watch videos, order content, and do other tasks that require energy. It’s time that we, as consumers, paid more attention to the detail that “free” or low cost entertainment does have an impact on the environment.
The real problem with your Netflix addiction? The carbon emissions
Questions are being asked about the energy consumption of streaming services – which is why we should all pay more attention to our digital footprint
Wed 12 Feb 2020 02.00 EST Last modified on Wed 12 Feb 2020 13.05 EST
Binge-watching Netflix doesn’t just fry your brain; it may also be frying the planet. The streaming service’s global energy consumption increased by 84% in 2019 to a total of 451,000 megawatt hours – enough to power 40,000 average US homes for a year.
Netflix disclosed these figures in its inaugural environmental, social and governance report, noting it matched 100% of its 2019 non-renewable power use “with renewable energy certificates and carbon offsets”. While these may help the brand, they don’t address the inconvenient fact that our love of streaming has unfortunate side-effects – most of which we are only starting to comprehend. Advertisement
Digital technology has ushered in an age of inconspicuous consumption. It is easy to understand the environmental impact of buying “stuff” or flying across the Atlantic. It is harder to wrap your head around how much energy it takes to fly data across the web. We may feel that we are consuming less thanks to the internet, but digital technologies account for more carbon emissions than the aerospace industry, according to a study by the Shift Project, a Paris-based thinktank. Transmitting and viewing online video accounts for a large portion for this, generating nearly 1% of global emissions. Similarly, a study from the universities of Glasgow and Oslo found that streaming music has led to “significantly higher carbon emissions than at any previous point in the history of music”.
Being a conscientious consumer does not mean you have to turn off your wifi or chill with the Netflix. But we should think more critically about our data consumption. Apple already delivers screen-time reports; perhaps tech services should start providing us with carbon counts. Or maybe Netflix should implement carbon warnings. Caution: this program contains nudity, graphic language and a hell of a lot of energy.
•Arwa Mahdawi is a Guardian columnist