In case you hadn’t heard, streaming one episode of The Office on Netflix has the same environmental impact as driving 4 miles.
At least, that’s according to one report, published in 2018 and recently re-circulated by The Big Think.
As many headlines put it, climate scientists are coming for our binge-watching habits, thereby making everyday consumers of BoJack Horseman and The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel feel guilty for their environmental transgressions.
It’s part of a familiar trope that has developed in recent years: that thing you enjoy doing is actually very bad for the forests and oceans, and you should feel bad.
“I would characterize the major deficiencies of climate reporting as problems of emphasis and omission: news stories often emphasize the wrong information and omit relevant context,” David M. Romps, a climate physicist and professor of earth and planetary science at UC Berkeley, told Motherboard.
Whether you’re throwing out too much food, playing video games on the cloud, ordering something from Amazon, drinking coffee, streaming music, or wearing jeans, these stories suggest that you should be worried about how your individual actions are accelerating climate change. Unsurprisingly, kids in particular are confused and freaking out.
This narrative blames everyday consumers for the quickening deterioration of the planet, while obscuring the role played by corporate, governmental, and organizational forces—like the 20 companies that are responsible for one-third of all carbon emissions. In a now-deleted tweet following its annual meeting of the world’s richest people, the World Economic Forum posted a misleading infographic warning of the environmental damage caused by sending “Thank You” emails. The graphic was based on a study funded by Ovo Energy, the second largest energy supply company in the U.K.
Key to how these stories travel is the risk of misinformation. For example, the 2018 report was released by a Paris-based non-profit called The Shift Project, but that report has never been fully verified. From there, it was picked up by a variety of publications and social media users, appearing again every few months after someone else seemingly stumbles upon it.
Data Center Knowledge, a news site covering the cloud computing industry, recently contested the Shift Project’s math and methodology, and found that the carbon footprint generated by a half hour stream is actually closer to driving 461 feet. But these corrections barely matter (and it’s worth keeping in mind the self-interest of an industry publication). The Shift Project's report distracts from bigger, more urgent systemic problems.
“Energy efficiency is always laudable, but we will beat global warming only if we rapidly shut down the burning of coal, oil, and gas,” said Romps. “There will be plenty of clean electricity to power all the Netflix we want. The question is: how quickly do we transition to clean energy? If we drag our feet, then we will roast the planet. If we act quickly, then we can prevent Earth's temperature from rising much further.”
The warnings about streaming, then, are something of a distraction. As Romps points out, we certainly do need to decarbonize the electric grid, but “in a sense, we need to use more electricity, because all non-carbon sources of energy that can scale up to power human civilization—wind, solar, and maybe nuclear—all make electricity.” What we need to do, he said, is stop burning gas, oil, and coal, and begin powering everything with (decarbonized) electricity. In this version of the way forward, data centers and the computing industry are already consistent with a non-carbon future.
When publications refer to the environmental impact of streaming, they’re generally referring to the energy usage of data centers. Research published in 2018 by Nature showed that data centers currently account for just 0.3% of overall carbon emissions, which could grow by 3 to 8 percent by 2030 according to different experts.
Even accounting for all information and communications technology—including mobile networks and smartphones—only reaches just over 2 percent of global emissions, according to the Nature report. That’s not an insignificant amount (it’s about on par with fuel emissions from air travel), but only further highlights how absurd it is to focus on data centers and, even more, streaming video.
The thinking goes that, as more platforms like Disney+, Apple TV+, and HBO Max launch, our couch potato habits will escalate and data centers will be forced to process evermore data, causing further harm.
Romps argues that these fears are understandable, but unwarranted. “The fossil fuel companies deserve heaping piles of blame for their funding of disinformation campaigns and lobbying,” he said. “Keep your eye on the prize. We all have a responsibility to reduce our use of fossil fuels by, for example, ditching the gasoline-powered car and cutting out the use of oil and gas to heat our homes”—and streaming less TV is not high on that priority list.
The most worrying predictions for data center usage are based on an extrapolative model that fails to account for the major gains made every year in energy efficiencies, which are almost certain to increase along with our demand and usage of data centers, as many recent studies have noted.
“Given the demand for data center services, the industry is performing well to keep that trend line [of efficiency gains] near horizontal,” Bill Carter, chief technology officer with the Open Compute Project, an organization devoted to redesigning hardware in sustainable ways, told Motherboard. “These gains will continue as new technologies are applied.”
Amazon Web Services, the cloud computing platform that powers Amazon Prime as well as a majority of Netflix, has promised to run entirely on renewable energy by 2030—a relatively modest timeline, but a significant move all the same. Scholars and scientists are researching new and innovative ways to reduce electricity consumption at data centers, but that research must also be implemented to have an impact.
The real danger of these sidetrack discourses is that it becomes more difficult to properly understand the nuances of data centers and their environmental impact, and where that usage is situated within the wider ecosystem of climate damage. Instead, we’re stuck revisiting stale arguments about individual responsibility.
“The conversation needed is how long we use products and whether we can waterfall our old products to other users,” Carter said. “By extending the useful life of products, consumers can reduce energy and greenhouse gasses. Consumers do play a role here—do we need that new TV, or new smartphone?”
The small things you do, the changes in behavior, matter. But ideally, those things lead to more ambitious work, or political action. Individual behavior is only going to be effective if it leads to change on a systemic scale: the way we produce energy, not the way we consume it. “For someone who cannot yet afford to replace their gasoline car with an electric car,” Romps said, “I would recommend that they stay home and watch Netflix.”