The Environmental Cost of Streaming
Fri, December 9, 2022

The Environmental Cost of Streaming


Most of us may have forgotten the traditional television format that kept us entertained decades ago. Those glory days are long gone now as consumers have shifted away from this format. People across the world have been switching to streaming, which allows them to personalize the content they want to consume. Thus, both music and video streaming have become an essential part of our daily lives. 

Many consumers are fascinated with the fact that they have thousands of options in music and movies that they can choose from. A 2018 report showed that both audio and video streaming volume have exceeded 900 billion streams in 2018, a 43% increase compared to 2017. Music streaming volume alone had a 34% growth in total streaming revenue last 2019, while more than 45% of households in the US have access to streaming video-on-demand services.

According to Finances Online, the fastest growing independent software review platform, 81% of consumers use music streaming platforms because of the variety of music available, followed by low price point (80%), ability to listen on multiple devices (68%), clean interface (66%), and good algorithm to find music (58%). Other important features include the ability to blend their music library with streaming service library (64%), the ability to stream on smart home devices (57%), curated playlists (52%), and artists exclusives (46%). 

Also, statistics show that the most popular video streaming services in the US are Netflix (79%), followed by Amazon Prime (55%), YouTube (53%), Hulu (40%), and more. Netflix has dominated the video streaming platform over the past few years. Its revenue growth has been steady: 2014 ($5.5billion), 2015 ($6.779 billion), 2016 ($8.83 billion), 2017 ($11 billion), and 2018 ($15.8 billion). 

While we enjoy the services brought by these streaming services, it has taken a toll on our environment.

Impacts of Streaming Spotify on Our Environment

The peak of CD production came at the start of the 20th century. The US industry alone was using 61,000 tons of plastic just to keep up with the growing demand for CDs. However, this massively changed when the Spotify ‘freemium’ platform gave people access to over 50 million tracks in 2008. As a result, the usage of plastics to make CDs dropped substantially to just 8,000 tons as digital formats took over. While this sounds more environmentally friendly, multiple studies show that the environmental impact of streaming far outweighs the plastic use of physical products. 

“From a carbon emissions perspective, the transition towards streaming recorded music from internet-connected devices has resulted in significantly higher carbon emissions than at any previous point in the history of music,” Dr. Kyle Devine, an Associate Professor in Music at the University of Olso, explained. 

According to Rollingstone, an American monthly magazine that focuses on popular culture, Dr. Devine explored the environmental impact of music consumption along with Matt Brennan at the University of Glasgow. The findings showed that while plastic used to make physical records has plummeted, the energy it takes to stream and download digital music has caused greenhouse gas emissions to rise sharply. They found out that the amount of greenhouse gas emissions generated by the energy needed to transmit music for streaming is estimated to be between 200 and 350 million kilograms -- higher than approximately 157 million kilograms of greenhouse gas emissions in the 2000s. 



“The amount that people are streaming and downloading is increasing at such a rate that they may outweigh any gains in the efficiency of the system. This is just in the U.S. and once we take into account places where streaming is huge — China, or Africa or India — places where there are less stringent requirements on the generation of power for the internet, I don’t have those numbers, but my sense is the picture gets even uglier,” Dr. Devine added. 

However, the environmental impacts of music streaming are not that appealing to people because most of its effects are largely invisible. Listening to music in real-time demands a huge amount of power generated by servers often miles away. Studies have shown that consumers are emitting over 350,000 tons of greenhouse gases per year because of the need to run data centers 24/7. It should also be noted that data centers are responsible for about 2% of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions, a carbon footprint nearly equal to the airline industry.



Carbon Footprint By Streaming Netflix 

Experts predict that there will be a huge growth of online traffic over the next couple of years. By 2022, around 60% of the world's population will be online, with video making up more than 80% of all internet traffic. Of that figure, 60% would be coming from streaming videos stored on a server and viewed remotely, via sites like Netflix, YouTube or Vimeo. Thus, Maxime Efoui-Hess, an energy and environmental expert at The Shift Project, stated that countries need to urgently reconsider the future of internet use and think about cutting back.

Efoui-Hess emphasized that although we make a successful shift to renewable energy now, "the internet is a worldwide thing, so it would require every country in the world to be powered by renewable energy." According to Carbon Brief, a UK-based website designed to improve the understanding of climate change, both in terms of the science and the policy response, the average carbon footprint of a half-hour Netflix show is equivalent to driving around 200 meters in a conventional car. 

However, it would also depend on the generation mix of the country in question. For instance, in France, where around 90% of electricity comes from low-carbon sources, the emissions would be around 4gCO2e, equivalent to 20 meters of driving.

Fortunately, consumers can somehow help in decreasing greenhouse gas emissions caused by video streaming. Efoui-Hess said that using Wi-Fi is better than mobile data because it uses the most electricity. Mobile data transfer can weaken electromagnetic waves and lead to buffering videos. "The power amplifiers have a low electrical efficiency, which means that about half of the energy used for data transmission is lost as heat. The most efficient transmission technology is fiber-optic cables, which transmit signals by light,” Lutz Stobbe, who researches the environmental impact of information and telecommunications technology at the Fraunhofer Institute for Reliability and Microintegration, said.