Of this carbon footprint, the biggest impact by far (excluding non-web activities like blockchain mining or buying a new phone every year) is streaming video. The IEA claims streaming services from video and games will account for 87% of consumer internet traffic next year (2022), with video doubling to 2.9 zetabytes of data by then from only 2019. The rate of growth seems exponential – and video is 2-3 times worse than conventional broadcast TV.
This is bad news for creators: the bigger your audience, the more viral your videos, the worse the climate impact.
Dryden Williams, founder of website footprint optimiser EcoPing estimated that the global carbon footprint of just one adult video site is over 580,000 tonnes of CO2 each year – more than the entire footprint of Gibraltar, Granada or the Seychelles.
Worse, in the rush to cut CO2 emissions, big data centre owners like Google have switched from energy-intensive air conditioning for cooling, to water cooling. This has created a new demand for billions of gallons of water, which is particular problematic given data centres are often built in hot, dry regions. Time magazine found that in some places the demand for water for data centres could be from 10% up to 50% of a district’s water needs. “In Red Oak, Texas, a town about 20 miles south of Dallas, Google wants as much as 1.46 billion gallons of water a year for a new data center… Ellis County, which includes Red Oak and roughly 20 other towns, will need almost 15 billion gallons for everything from irrigation to residential use.”
This is why climate researchers specialising in ICT increasingly say we can’t only focus on CO2 but must look at full life-cycle impacts. It’s not only water usage, but resources in the equipment from data centres and consumer devices – as well as the energy source itself.
“In France, we tend to follow a Life-Cycle Assessment (LCA) approach that includes four factors: GHG emissions (CO2eq), water consumption (Litres), 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 – gauthierroussilhe.com/post/digital-sustainability-french.html
If all the different impacts could be tallied precisely, then given that many environmentalists call for us to reduce not offset – is the conclusion for filmmakers to stop making videos people want to watch and share online? Perhaps to ditch cliffhanger episodic TV for a feature film of the same story or preferably a short film or radio play? Must we add ‘Netflix and chill’ to the things to feel bad about?
Given the pushback against relatively simple behavioural changes like refill stations, it’s hard to imagine enough people wanting to ‘stop watching video online’. The only option therefore – until the grid is fully decarbonised – would seem to be climate impact offsetting.
This does three things:
It’s like a self-imposed, voluntary carbon-tax. There’s fair criticism of offsetting being used for greenwash, such as when Leon claimed their beef burger was carbon neutral because they’d paid some farmers to not burn down rainforest; but for impacts we’re stuck with until we’re on fossil-fuel free infrastructure, it seems a lot better than doing nothing.
Web Monetization (WM) is a new web protocol that streams every second tiny micropayments between a website owner, and someone browsing their site for as long as they’re on it. WM’s designers wanted to ‘stream payments’ in the same way the Internet streams data whenever an email, file or website is loaded. So given every byte of data has a potential carbon footprint – could streamed payments be used to offset streamed data in real-time?
In other words, what if Web Monetization could compensate exactly for the environmental impacts of data consumed online?
For example, suppose we want to offset a 90 minute documentary feature streamed online.
If we agree that streaming one hour of video is responsible for 100g of CO2eqv emissions –which is the rate given by research group DIMPACT, backed by Netflix, ITV and the BBC– we know that streaming the full film would release 150g. We then need to find a cost for taking this much CO2 out of the atmosphere irreversibly. Using the expensive, over-engineered, but reliable Orca project that would be $0.096 / 100g or $0.144 for the full film. This is well below Coil.com’s payout of $0.36/hour.
What’s unique about Web Monetization is, as a protocol for streaming micropayments, it could pay out, say, $0.015 for someone who only watched 10 minutes of the film, or $0.003 for a 4 minute music video – while handling each transaction invisibly in the background.
The footprint of 60 episodes of Battlestar Galactica streamed at 4k to a flatscreen TV is obviously much higher than a dozen Tik Tok videos on a phone. Web Monetization, coupled with analysis of the user-agent and location, could ensure that offsetting costs are proportional to media-type, energy mix and use, while protecting privacy.
Who might sign up for that? It could be done at consumer, platform or creator level. For e.g.:
Before this kind of approach can be taken seriously there are three research-heavy questions that need to resolved around monitoring, methodology and how to compensate:
To answer these questions there’s a big shortfall in data as companies like Google, Amazon, Apple and Facebook aren’t required to make public their full use of resources, energy and water, and most of them don’t.
While this all points to the importance of rapidly decarbonising the energy grid everywhere, of the legislative low-hanging fruits to be sought at COP26 in Glasgow, a cheap-but-impactful one is to mandate that large technology and web companies publish full life-cycle data on carbon, resource, energy and water (CREW) use. This would allow individuals and business to make informed choices about where to host, stream and watch video – and provide the needed data to let them offset/compensate that impact if they want. If the data was audited, it could help ‘the market’ reward companies who improve their impact – on the assumption any consumers, platforms or filmmakers wanting to reduce their own impact would favour them, even with higher costs.
Maybe streamed micropayments –aka Web Monetization– that flows like data for the duration of an activity, has other applications during the fast decarbonisation our societies and economies need to meet the 1.5C goal of the Paris Agreement. Perhaps you could have streamed micropayments for every KwH of solar energy generated, or for web hosting in a fossil-fuel-free energy country?
Or perhaps micropayments go back to consumers for every minute listening to music online with the screen dark, or for watching lower-resolution video, or using a refurbished older model phone, or streaming off-peak when energy demands are lower. Or even for pricing in the impacts from different parts of network infrastructure as data moves around the world between countries with different energy mixes – with a different cost if your video CDN is using a server cluster in coal heavy Poland over nuclear-France or hydro-Norway. It’s an carbon accountant’s dream, although potentially an engineering heavy answer to the problem.
Ultimately, the work coming out of communities like ClimateAction.Tech is inspiring because small changes can have big impacts:
So while the data is incomplete, and the divergence in opinion from experts can be dizzying and make it tempting to give up for fear of getting it wrong – the scale of the climate crisis and the growing impact of online video towards that makes it feel that doing anything is better than nothing. Mistakes can be corrected, models and estimates can be adjusted as more data is made available. The key thing is to start.