This page would be better for the environment without this photo, but at least it’s not a video.

Is sustainable online video even possible?

Video’s impact is rising

More people are watching more video on bigger, newer devices at higher resolution for longer – so video’s impacts are rocketting.

Finding the right balance

The simplest answer is for people to watch less video online; but for those who won’t or don’t want to – or those whose business is telling stories with video — what are the alternatives?

Build in the planetary cost

Rather than pretend video has no footprint – or make unrealistic demands for people to stop streaming – we want to build into online video models a fair cost for the ecological footprint of storing, streaming and serving video.

Working with limited data

The lifecycle impacts of online video are especially hard to calculate given hardware and network providers aren’t required to share their data on Water, Resources, Energy & CO2eqv (WREC) impacts.

Audit & Monitoring

Better data on where WREC costs are happening, will allow for better mitigation and reduction – an incomplete estimate is better than no estimate.

Compensating not offsetting

Calculating the ecological costs around streaming video can’t be neutralised with offsetting, but it can direct money to projects working to reduce the climate crisis.

Links and reference points

Film initatives

  • Project Albert, UK. Industry funded sustainability intiative, with extensive resources, training, and ‘Sustainable Production Certification (1/2/3 star)’.
  • Filmmakers for the the Future:. Campaigning, events and some resources.
  • Grüner Drehpass, Germany. Green Shooting Initiative of the Hamburg Film Fund .
  • Green Film, Italy. Rating system for sustainable film production.
  • Green Shoting, Germany. Green Shooting Initiative of the Baden-Württemberg Film Fund.
  • Creative Industries Pact for Sustainability, Pact to drive collective progress toward climate action in the creative industries.
  • Adgreen, UK. ‘supports the advertising industry’s transition to environmentally sustainable production methods’.
  • Green Film Tools, Germany. Knowledge database and workshops on environmentally friendly production techniques.

DIMPACT

DIMPACT is a collaborative project, based at the University of Bristol designed to develop an online tool that takes the complexity out of calculating the carbon emissions of the downstream value chain of digital media content. Collaborators include sixteen media giants including Netflix, Sky, Channel 4, the BBC, ITV and Informat

Smarter UX Design

The removal of design patterns like video auto-play, and auto-playlisting could reduce the impact of online video with very little effort. A study by Daniel Schein and Christopher Preist in 2019 found that turning off video for users who are only using to YouTube to play music, and aren’t watching the screen, could save 500,000 tonnes of carbon annual; equivalent to 5% of YouTube’s total energy footprint.

Some lessons

1. It’s hard finding agreement…

“My estimate for video streaming is 0,19g of CO2 per hour, while the Shift Project calculated that video streaming emits 400g of CO2 per hour. That’s about 1,000 more!”

François Zaninotto

2. But quick, easy wins are possible…

“Just last week I reduced global emissions by an estimated 59,000 kg CO2 per month by removing a 20 kB JavaScript dependency in Mailchimp for WordPress. There’s no way I can have that kind of effect in other areas of my life.”

Danny van Kooten

3. Electricity isn’t the only climate impact

“In France, we tend to follow a Life-Cycle Assessment (LCA) approach that includes four factors: GHG emissions (CO2eq), water consumption (Liters), abiotic resources consumption (Sbeq. or Antimony equivalent) and energy consumption (MJ). Like everybody else we measure these impacts on three different poles: data centers, networks and end-user equipment… So what’s the difference with the English-speaking approach? The main focus seems to be on reducing carbon emissions through the vector of electricity.”

Gauthier Roussilhe

Our approach: a self-imposed 100% Planet tax on ICT costs?

We are exploring the idea of adding a 100% ‘Planet Tax’ onto our ITC costs (equipment, hosting, network, viewing) to compensate against the impact of our project’s potential growth on Water, Resources, Energy & CO2eqv emissions (WREC) . Several times each year we would decide how to spend this ‘planet tax’ based on the advice of field experts. It would likely be in a mix of traditional PAS2060 carbon retention projects, research projects, such as those monitored by Carbon Plan, and wider advocacy and legal work.

We want to avoid the phrases ‘offsetting’ and ‘neutral’ as many climate experts believe the terms are misleading – and given the crisis we are in, we think their perspectives should be followed. 100% is also notably higher than many estimates for CO2eqv emissions for video streaming and hosting, but in the absence of full lifecycle data for WREC impacts we prefer to over-estimate than under-estimate – especially iven the historical emissions it took the web and us to get to this point. In the event of full life-cycle data becomming available and finding equpment and services that have already accounted for their own footprint fully, that take a circular lifecycle approach, we could lower this ‘planet tax’ and hope one day for it to be, like carbon emissions, zero.

The unanswered questions

  • How wide a scope should be accounted for?

    There’s three broad areas that can be considered when discussing a film’s footprint:

    1. the impacts in the production of the media.
    2. the impacts related to the energy in serving the media from server, through network infrastrucutre to the end-user’s device.
    3. the impacts related to the manufactur of equipment during the media delivery stage.

    DIMPACT, for instance, focuses only on the second level, energy. But Netflix claim half of their total footprint is from the production process.

  • What are the CO2 emissions for one hour of streaming?

    The Carbon Trust recently published a figure of 55g CO2eqv/hour for the energy (not production or equipment) for people streaming in Europe. Accounting for North America, Netflix put this at 100g/hour.

  • How to account for water

    Water is increasingly used in data centres to cool servers in place of air conditioning. This shift allows companies like Google to claim their datacentres are becomming more energy efficient, and releasing less CO2, while using millions of litres of water a day. Worse, many data centres are built in hot, desert-like drought-prone regions as it makes servers easier to call when the air is dry.

    But this data isn’t published so it’s hard to build water consumption into assessment of impacts.

  • What about hardware impacts?

    Becomes companies aren’t required to publish the energy and resource impacts of their equipment, it’s very hard to know exactly how much CO2, resources or water any particular phone or smart TV has used in its production. However studies on single devices suggest it makes a huge share of total footprint; from 20% for smart phones to a huge footprint for large flat-screen TVs.

  • How best to spend offsetting/self-tax funds?

    PAS2060 is the BSI standard for carbon ‘offsetting’ projects, but like any standard has sotires of abuse. It’s also questionable if tree-planting, is a fair offset as while tree planting is essential, it’s carbon benefit is spread over a 40-year tree life-span, which requires not only forrest stewardish but depends on the tree neither being burnt in a forrest fire or felled in a huricane. 

    Other options include more experimental research on direct carbon removal technologies (Carbon Plan oversses a good list on behalf of Microsoft and Stripe: ), but like any new technology only a small number of these will be viable and some may have unintended negative consequences.

Keep updated on developments

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