Binge-watching is going to make your carbon footprint soar

Unless you’ve stayed faithful to your DVD collection, or avoided social media with Luddite gusto, you’ve likely noticed the soaring rise of digital video streaming.

Companies from Netflix and Hulu to HBO and Amazon are serving up ever more top-notch programming to meet our binge-watching needs. YouTube, Facebook and Twitter are increasingly flooding our feeds with live-streamed events and, naturally, cat videos. 

Streaming videos means storing data on millions of servers and transmitting shows to our devices, both of which use a sizable amount of electricity. 

So if IT companies get that electricity from fossil fuels — not renewable energy — the sector’s carbon footprint is likely to balloon, environmentalists and energy analysts cautioned.

A smartphone sits on display during a launch event for Netflix service in Tokyo, Japan.

A smartphone sits on display during a launch event for Netflix service in Tokyo, Japan.

Image: KEN ISHII/Getty Images

“If those companies don’t join the [clean energy] race in a real way, that growth is going to be driving more demand for dirty energy,” Gary Cook, senior IT analyst for Greenpeace, told Mashable.

Greenpeace on Tuesday released its annual “Clicking Clean” report, which scores digital companies on their environmental performance.

The report lists Apple, Google, Facebook and data center operator Switch as the IT sector’s top achievers. All of the firms have made significant investments in renewable energy and energy efficiency at their data centers, offices and, in Apple’s case, manufacturing sites.

But video streaming companies, including Netflix, HBO and Amazon, are lagging, according to Greenpeace.

All three firms scored poorly in the new report after flunking categories such as “energy transparency” and “renewable procurement,” which refer to efforts to purchase cleaner electrons or invest in wind and solar projects.

Image: Greenpeace, “Clicking clean” (2017)

Given its growth, video streaming has the potential to either advance — or undermine — the IT sector’s recent environmental progress.

Streaming drove nearly two-thirds of global internet traffic in 2015, according to Cisco. By 2020, it could account for nearly 80 percent of traffic as the world watches the equivalent of 1 million video minutes every second.

“The lion’s share of the amount of data that’s transmitted across the internet is involved with video streaming,” said Arman Shehabi, a research scientist at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory in California, who was not involved with the Greenpeace report.

Shehabi found that in 2011, Americans streamed 3.2 billion hours of video, which consumed 25 petajoules of energy and resulted in 1.3 billion kilograms of carbon dioxide emissions, according to his 2014 report. He said those numbers have likely soared over the past six years.

Hulu's logo on a window in New York City.

Hulu’s logo on a window in New York City.

Image: AP photo/dan goodman

Even so, the IT sector has so far managed to offset its rising electricity needs by designing energy-efficient data centers and investing in renewable energy, Shehabi said.

“They’re holding back an explosion of energy use that’s associated with the explosion in demand,” he told Mashable. “The challenge is, it’s continuing to explode. [Companies] have got to keep pushing back.”

Netflix, which operates most of its technology in the Amazon Web Services cloud platform, said that roughly 50 percent of its energy mix comes from renewable energy sources. The company also intends to offset its carbon footprint by purchasing renewable-energy credits from other projects.

Yet Amazon Web Services is substantially growing its data center capacity in states that still rely heavily on coal-fired power plants and lack strong clean energy policies, such as Virginia. As Netflix’s appetite for cloud computing grows, the company will likely depend more on fossil fuel-fired electricity.

Possibly the home of your binge-watching favorites.

Possibly the home of your binge-watching favorites.

Image: Maksim Bogodvid/Sputnik via AP

Netflix did not immediately return Mashable‘s request for comment.

Cook, the lead author of Tuesday’s report, said the choices that internet companies make on energy affect more than their own sector.

Commitments by Facebook, Apple, Google and other firms to power their data centers and offices with clean energy have helped drive billions of dollars’ worth of investments across the U.S. and enabled other companies to follow suit. 

These companies have also helped put pressure on state and federal governments to enact policies to promote renewable energy development and deployment — an advocacy role that may become even more important during the incoming Trump administration.

“We continue to give such focus to the [IT] sector, because they have such a critical role to play. It’s one of the few sectors where energy demand is growing very rapidly,” Cook said. 

“We need to make sure we’re moving in the right direction.”