Greenhouse Gas Emissions From Streaming Digital Content

I’ve been speaking about web sustainability a bit recently, and a question that comes up fairly frequently is about the impact of audio and video streaming. Catherine Van Loo from Carnerstone consultancy is part of the team working on DIMPACT — a collaborative initiative between researchers and digital media companies with the aim of quantifying and reducing carbon emissions from digital content. She recently gave an illuminating talk at Green Tech South West on the subject.

Some key takeaways:

  • Reducing emissions from digital streaming is a cross-sectoral challenge. It requires collaboration from streaming companies, the ICT sector, device manufacturers, and others who might be invested in reducing emissions, such as record labels and artists.
  • The vast majority of carbon emissions are generated in the use phase — from the user consuming content on their devices.
  • Streaming on a mobile network uses more energy than on wi-fi.
  • Size of device plays a part: a large desktop computer would consume more power than a mobile device for the same content.
  • The amount of data transferred doesn’t necessarily correlate to the amount of energy used on the network, as companies optimise for peak periods. But over time this would cause those peaks to become larger, and the companies to increase their network power and infrastructure to deal with these larger peaks.
  • The DIMPACT model doesn’t take into account the embodied emissions (the carbon emissions associated with manufacturing the devices and infrastructure), but these are still important to consider.

I highly recommend watching the talk in full. There are also links to plenty of resources mentioned in the talk.

Watch the talk

Read the Carbon Trust’s report on the impact of streaming (PDF)

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