Is Streaming Video Bad for the Environment? IDK, Watch This Video About It

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This being the darkest timeline, we must all find ways to extract joy where we can get it. For many of us, that means the occasional Netflix binge. Sure, watching TV for hours at a time isn’t great for your physical or mental health but all things considered, it’s not like it’s going to burn the planet down, right?

WRONG, says “experts!” You, personally, watching all ten seasons of the Great British Bake Off to deal with the oppressive reality of 2020, are responsible for the fact that Australia is currently burning down and that one day the sea will rise and consume our grandchildren. You are responsible, and even more so that trollop Mary Berry is responsible. You’ve got red on your hands, Mary, and it’s not from the Spanische windtorte.

Also me, I guess, since I am producing digital streaming video literally as I speak. Ooh, meta.

Anyway, this news does not come from a study. Though they call it a “study” in several places, it is simply a detailed report that has not been peer reviewed or published in any scientific journal. 

It was produced by a think tank called the Shift Project, which describes itself as helping to “shape a world in which businesses have the knowledge skills, and incentives to respect human rights.” I can get down with that. The report is based on several studies that detail the carbon footprint of our internet use. Shift points out that a recent study found internet usage may be responsible for about 4% of total carbon emissions, which is small. Very small — agriculture is responsible for about 25% of all emissions, and if you want to make a difference you will do more for the environment by eating fewer hamburgers than by watching less Netflix, and that is absolutely inarguable. Still, 4% is nothing to sneeze at and I’m willing to engage in a discussion of how our internet use might be problematic. These emissions come from the manufacturing of servers, computers, and smart phones, and the power, maintenance, and cooling of those devices.

80% of internet traffic is from video streaming, including sites like Netflix, YouTube, porn sites, and social media sites that embed video, so it’s worth considering that streaming video (especially 4k and other high def video) is a significant contributor to global warming.

So what do we do about it? The Shift Project’s report suggests “digital sobriety,” which sounds about as fun as any other kind of sobriety, if I’m honest. They suggest some things that I can agree with, like possibly imposing regulations on addictive designs like video autoplay. Autoplay is annoying as fuck and absolutely is there for the benefit of advertisers and video hosts, not for you, and it should be something that you have to opt into. Non-video-hosting websites that autoplay videos, like news sites, should be nuked from orbit. Autoplay videos in ads should be outlawed and the penalty should be death. And please, Netflix, for the love of Christ, can you stop playing a show just because it’s selected on the main screen? I just want to quietly read the description you fucking numbnuts. 

But the Shift Project’s report also requires that individuals like you and me use the lowest video “definition that can be used to benefit from contents,” as well as reducing consumption and being more selective about what we watch. That is, I’m sorry, absurd and stupid. Have the creators of this document ever met a human being? Like, yes, in general we should all be consuming less. Of everything. Food, alcohol, drugs, cheap clothes, Funko Pops — but you can’t reduce that consumption by issuing a report and saying hey guys, let’s reduce our consumption. No matter how great your argument is, you aren’t going to convince enough people to make a dent. That’s just simple psychology. And the number of people who will read this report and permanently switch all their streaming video to 360p is exactly zero. I’m sorry but no, I’m not voluntarily watching British Bake-off if I can’t tell the difference between Noel Fielding and Sandi Toksvig. I want to see Paul Hollywood’s nipples get hard when he tastes that perfect bake. It’s part of the experience.

The only way to make a dent in our digital footprint is by consumers and governments pressuring corporations to do things like, yes, stop autoplay, and also to use renewable energy sources. Which, guess what? Many of these corporations already do. Far be it from me to ever defend Amazon but they’re on track to use 80% renewable energy in the next four years. They did that, in part, because investors targeted them for not disclosing environmental information and their own employees petitioned them to take action on climate change.

That’s action that works — collective action, voting with your money. And the report doesn’t mention that consumers are already making that impact on digital providers, in ways that are nearly impossible for consumers to do to the fossil fuel and agricultural industries, which are far, far worse offenders when it comes to carbon output.

I will say that I do appreciate the reminder that it is good to be mindful of even the little things you do that you may not consider have a negative impact on the world. I’m not going to stop binging television shows that bring me joy. Sorry. But I may stop mindlessly streaming videos in the background while I work. Maybe. Look, I have a process and it involves half-watching true crime documentaries while I write. Don’t judge me.

Rebecca Watson

Rebecca is a writer, speaker, YouTube personality, and unrepentant science nerd. In addition to founding and continuing to run Skepchick, she hosts Quiz-o-Tron, a monthly science-themed quiz show and podcast that pits comedians against nerds. There is an asteroid named in her honor. Twitter @rebeccawatson Mastodon Instagram @actuallyrebeccawatson TikTok @actuallyrebeccawatson YouTube @rebeccawatson BlueSky

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