We were recently approached to pass comment on Global Digital Carbon footprints and the team at Gaia Edge began taking a closer look at some facts and figures.
In 2020, streaming giant Netflix released their second Environmental Social Governance report using SASB guidelines. Like most progressive and forward-looking organisations They deserve credit for their approach to sustainability – perhaps best seen through their statement:
As a passionate advocate of sustainability awareness not to mention how technology and data centers could and should be improving their energy performance it will come as no surprise that I was particularly interested in what Netflix had to say. You might go so far as to call it my bedtime reading.
So let’s turn the clock back to 2019 and early 2020, sensationalist headlines were common, like the one above, which we made up to illustrate just how Netflix were unfairly targeted by a number of media outlets. Major organisations including The Guardian picked up the research and reported data provided by the French Think Tank - The Shift Project (whom I hasten to add had never specifically mentioned Netflix).
Back in 2019 the report sparked a host of controversy around “Cat Videos causing a climate change nightmare” as well as mainstream media over reporting on the emissions created by one hour of Netflix streaming. Some outlets claimed that half an hour of streaming was the equivalent of driving 4 miles or powering an LED lightbulb for around a week. These figures whilst making great headlines, have largely been discredited with experts from the Carbon Brief, in conjunction with research and analysis from the IEA, suggesting their calculations were out by a very significant factor.
So how much energy does streaming actually use?
Fast forward to 2020 and the debate rumbles on but hats off to Netflix for their recent efforts in ESG reporting, especially in helping solve this mystery. As whilst end user consumption falls into scope 3 and as such is not reported upon, Netflix alongside other streaming companies, have tried to calculate the operational emissions of streaming at consumer level. Using DIMPACT, a collaborative research initiative that has created a lifecycle foot printing tool led by University of Bristol computer science department. Netflix have entered and validated their own data and estimate 1 hour of streaming in 2020 to be well under 100g CO2e which is the equivalent of driving a car approximately ¼ Mile. (approx. 400m).
Netflix state “These results are consistent with industry peers and validated by our Advisory Group of Experts, with Carbon Trust publishing a White Paper on the topic this spring. We are glad to support these cross-sector efforts to help everyone better understand the footprint of streaming”.
The Carbon Trust report estimates around 55g CO2e or approximately 0.077KW/h.
These figures include end user devices power requirements, all internet hops and the infrastructure required to deliver the streamed video.
So let´s for a minute assume that these figures are correct.
Sustainable Video Streaming?
Netflix have 204 Million subscribers globally and each of us reportedly watch around 8 hours 52 minutes per week according to Statista
8.86 Hours Weekly Netflix use
0.077 KWh energy use per streaming hour
1000 Conversion to MWh
5.12 Million Metric Tons of CO2 Equivalent could power 617 618 homes for a year, drive 12.8 Million miles or charge 623,872,046,893 smartphones. So suddenly Netflix’ reporting (or any other digital provider for that matter) gets a different perspective. One that should signal to us all that carbon consumption, energy use and sustainability is a collective responsibility, it cannot rest with organisation like Netflix alone – yes their size and scale demand better from them but we, as individuals, consumers, business leaders and global citizens need to act together.
Ironically our made-up headline isn’t as far of the mark as you might expect – based on our collective use of Netflix alone we’d need to plant 5.12 Million trees and grow them for not 10 but for 100 years. Green Energy Consulting report that “one broad leaf tree will absorb in the region of 1 tonne of carbon dioxide during its full life-time (approximately 100 years).” So annually we’d need to plant 5.12 Million trees and let them grow for 100 years to absorb and counterbalance the amount of energy we use and carbon we create just from using the streaming service.
Now before I go any further, I should say I’m in no way anti-Netflix, I love a bit of Breaking Bad as much as the next person but in the interest of transparency I’m disappointed to see the limitations in the accountability and reporting displayed, lack of direct comparables, and more than a little frustrated to see yet more “Green Washing” in the form of footnotes to REC programs and that mask the consumption issues we’re all facing. In our recent report Race to Zero – The path to sustainability in the Data Center of tomorrow we highlighted just how 96% of G250 companies are reporting on sustainability and most, if not all disclose their Carbon Offsets and use Renewable Energy Credit Schemes (RECS) but
Whilst I fully acknowledge that ESG reporting is an emerging discipline and Netflix have no responsibility to publicly account for the energy use of their subscribers in consuming their content AND they are clear and transparent that within their scope 3 reporting they do not include user devices or internet transmission - nonetheless I believe it’s a measure that as users we should be able to see, address and ultimately reduce.
The path to sustainable Data Centers
If this makes for uncomfortable reading then I’d consider that a minor win – we must take action today to create a new normal as far as sustainability is concerned. It’s not enough to have shifted from “Sunday drives” to “Netflix and chill” as a way of reducing our own carbon footprint or to simply shift from petrol and diesel to EV’s – we have to think and act more creatively, more innovatively to maintain our way of life in the face of what is undoubtedly our biggest collective challenge to date.
We know that progress and sustainability must go hand in hand. Gaia Edge designs and builds sustainable datacenters, supporting organisations by driving measurable performance whilst reducing environmental impact.
If you’re looking for guidance on how your data center can achieve carbon neutrality, get in touch with Gaia Edge today where our team of experienced, highly knowledgeable experts will be able to help with your transformation into a greener, sustainable data center.
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