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 & Land (WRECL) impacts.

Audit & Monitoring

Better data on where WRECL costs are happening will allow for better mitigation and reduction – an incomplete estimate is always better than no estimate; an estimates will only improve, especially the more important they become in business decissions.

Compensating not offsetting

Offsetting is often calculated on, say, how much CO2 a tree will absorb over 50 years– when we don’t know if it will be lost in a fire, or if it’s more than from the native growth that would have happened anyway. Rather than promising carbon offsetting, as that’s  hard to calculate and prove, we are interested in climate compensation.

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.

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.

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

Greening of Streaming

A new UK-based membership industry body working to  “ensure that Streaming becomes as sustainable as we can make it”

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

What we’re considering: a self-imposed 100% Climate Compensation charge on our impactful costs

While carbon offsets are often criticised, they do make money for needy projects, and incentivising less carbon-intensive activities. But they don’t normally compensate against WRECL impacts (water, resource, energy, CO2eqv, land) – and favour quantifiable, measurable activities – which might not be the most impactful.

Furthermore, calculating impacts with confidence is a big job for a tiny org, so we’re considering adding a 100% ‘Climate Compensation’ charge onto our most impactful costs (e.g. equipment, hosting, network, viewing, travel, office utitlites). Several times each year we would decide how to spend this ‘compensation’ based on the advice of experts. It may 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.

100% is much higher than estimates for CO2eqv emissions for video streaming and hosting, but we prefer to over-estimate than under-estimate – especially given the historical emissions it took the web –and us– to get to this point.

As full life-cycle data becomes available we could adjust this level lower, while finding equpment and services that account for these impacts would also allow us to exclude them from the 100% charge. In other words we incentivise ourselves to procure as sustainably as possible. We’re aware it’s not foolproof – a cheap flight would have a lower compensation than an expensive train – so will discuss it on Mattermost before deciding.

Frequently Asked Questions

By Gauthier Roussilhe, PhD candidate from ENS Paris Saclay focusing on environmental impacts of digital technologies and digital materiality. Republished with permission. Read the full document, with longer explanation.

Why think about the environmental footprint of the digital sector?

Because the digital sector must find its place in the face of the rapid and massive reduction of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions defined by the Paris Agreement and the COPs. Because the digital sector depends on many other sectors that will have to transform rapidly and affect global material structures (energy, mining, logistics, etc.). Because the environmental crisis increases the risks to many links in the sector’s extraction, supply and manufacturing chains.

What is the estimated carbon footprint of the digital sector today?

According to the work of Charlotte Freitag et al. of Lancaster University, which synthesised and adjusted the various estimates, the carbon footprint of the digital sector would represent 2.1 and 3.9% of global emissions in 2020. The uncertainty is linked to the difficulty of obtaining data from the sector’s manufacturers and the opacity of the manufacturing chains. Thus, it is more rigorous to provide a range.

How to project the future footprint of the sector?

Projections beyond 10 years are not used as there are too many uncertain factors in the evolution of the digital sector and associated technologies. Andrae estimates that the footprint will continue to grow slowly (1269 MtCO2e by 2030) while Malmodin projects the footprint to halve by 2030. There are many factors that can affect the evolution of the footprint so projection is a perilous exercise. In any case, despite the increasing digitalisation over the last 20 years, the major environmental trends (increasing GHG, energy consumption, material footprint) have continued to rise.

Can we compare the emissions of the digital sector to the aviation sector?

The way emissions are accounted for in the two sectors are different, the scopes of calculation are not the same and the two sectors do not serve the same purposes so there is little point in comparing the two. The comparison was used to communicate that the digital sector has material and climate consequences like a highly visible sector, aviation. Once the materiality of the digital sector has become part of the collective unconscious it will be wise to abandon the metaphor.

What are and will be the most important environmental impacts to monitor?

Greenhouse gas emissions from the digital giants can be reduced through massive investment in renewable energy. Not all players in the sector can do the same and they will use carbon offsetting to reduce their emissions from an accunting perspective. So carbon emissions can be kept under control. It is clear that a massive shift in environmental impacts is taking place from the use phase (electricity consumption and related emissions) to the manufacturing phase (which is generally outside the responsibility of service companies). That is, the reduction of GHG emissions related to electricity consumption comes at the cost of increased consumption of materials, energy and water during the manufacture of equipment.

How can we understand and estimate the negative and positive effects of digitisation?

To understand both positive and negative effects, it is necessary to have access to good quality, representative open data. Open data allows it to be independently audited by several actors to verify its reliability. Access to good quality data depends on the ability of researchers and experts to obtain real measurement data (primary data). The representativeness of the data will depend on the scale at which one wishes to extrapolate the results. Today, very few of these conditions are met and experts use global models to extrapolate their results in space and time.

We are slowly beginning to see more clearly the environmental footprint of the sector but the methods for estimating positive impacts (avoided emissions) are far too methodologically weak to be considered. Firstly, although it is easy to model two small scenarios (videoconferencing VS face-to-face conference) it is very complicated to integrate the effects of digitalisation at larger scales where there are many more factors to integrate. Secondly, the estimates aim to incorporate enablement effects, i.e. where the digital sector can reduce emissions from other sectors, but they do not incorporate enablement effects that increase emissions (e.g. increased oil barrel production due to the digitalisation of an oil platform). As such, the few estimates present a gross balance of gains and not a net balance (emissions avoided – emissions added).

What is the global power consumption of data centres?

Between 196 and 400 TWh worldwide. The variability is explained by the data sets used and the assumptions about the development of hyperscalers around the world. Whatever the global consumption, the location of data centres poses real questions of planning and energy transition at local level, as in Dublin, Singapore or Frankfurt for example.

Why does the electrical measurement of the network transmission not match its environmental accounting?

There are two ways to report the power consumption of digital networks in the environmental footprint calculation. The conventional approach is to take global indicators such as data transfer and equipment power consumption to obtain a kWh/GB ratio. This approach allows for a posteriori accounting and all power consumption is allocated equally. The power model approach consists of allocating the base consumption of the equipment to each user/subscriber and then marginally allocating the surplus electricity related to the service used. The conventional approach is suitable for corporate environmental accounting and on a large scale, the power model approach is suitable for dynamic modelling of the power consumption of a data-carrying equipment/service. Whatever the approach, the power consumption of data centres and user equipment is calculated from the time of use.

Do we need to reduce global traffic to reduce the environmental impact of the digital sector?

Whether they are in use or not, digital infrastructures (data centres, networks) are always more or less switched on, so their consumption does not vary much according to data traffic. Similarly, the renewal of user equipment or the construction of new data centres is not directly related to data traffic. Thus, reducing global traffic does not directly reduce the environmental impact of the sector. However, if global traffic were to stabilise, one might assume that this would indirectly encourage a slowdown in the construction of new infrastructure. But traffic is only one factor among many that structure the development of the sector.

Why are we talking about the carbon impact of video streaming?

The discussion was launched following the Shift Project’s report on the issue. Many major media outlets subsequently reported the estimates. However, the think tank made several calculation errors, pointed out by George Kamiya of the IEA, leading to an overestimation of the carbon impact of online video. Today, the white paper co-authored by the Carbon Trust and numerous researchers and experts on the subject is a reference. Streaming on Netflix is estimated at 100gCO2e per hour, video streaming in Europe is estimated at 56gCO2e per hour. These estimates only take into account the usage phase of the digital infrastructure and exclude the impacts of the manufacturing phase. Within this limited scope, the main source of electricity consumption is the television set (smart or not). The electricity mix of the country where the consumption is located varies greatly in terms of CO2e emissions, and there is little variability in the footprint depending on the resolution (this is linked in particular to the allocation method).

What are the most ‘relevant’ collective decisions?

All the necessary national and European policies must be put in place to extend the life of equipment, reduce the purchase of digital equipment over time and stabilise the development of digital infrastructure (data centres, networks) in order to benefit from efficiency gains.

What are the most ‘effective’ individual behaviours?

At the individual level the most important actions are simply to keep your equipment for as long as possible, not to buy new if possible and to avoid over-equipment per person or per household. In an ideal world we should aim for consumer equipment (smartphones, etc.) with a functional life of 10 years.