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?
More people are watching more video on bigger, newer devices at higher resolution for longer – so video’s impacts are rocketting.
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?
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.
Better data on where WREC costs are happening, will allow for better mitigation and reduction – an incomplete estimate is better than no estimate.
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.
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
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.
“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.”
There’s three broad areas that can be considered when discussing a film’s footprint:
DIMPACT, for instance, focuses only on the second level, energy. But Netflix claim half of their total footprint is from the production process.
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.
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.
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.
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.
“In 1958, on prime-time television, “The Bell Science Hour” aired “The Unchained Goddess,” a film about meteorological wonders, produced by Frank Capra, warning that “man may be unwittingly changing the world’s climate” through the release of carbon dioxide. “A few degrees’ rise in the Earth’s temperature would melt the polar ice caps,” says the film’s kindly host, the bespectacled Dr. Research. “An inland sea would fill a good portion of the Mississippi Valley. Tourists in glass-bottomed boats would be viewing the drowned towers of Miami through 150 feet of tropical water.””