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Porn and Netflix Could Each Be Generating as Much CO2 as Bangladesh

Video files might be immaterial, but it takes a lot of power to get them to your phone.

by Gavin Butler
16 July 2019, 3:45am

Image via Pxhere (L) and Pixabay (R)

It might be time to consider cutting back on the amount of porn and Netflix you watch—or at the very least, its quality. According to new research by French think tank The Shift Project, online video streaming produces about 300 million tonnes of carbon dioxide a year. And porn sites and streaming platforms each account for about 100 million tonnes of that.

To put this into perspective: countries like Belgium, Bangladesh, and Nigeria each emit about 100 million tonnes of CO2 a year overall—the same amount that researchers say is being generated from people watching online porn around the world. And as video quality improves and consumers shift towards ever-heightening video definitions, pollution is likely to only get worse.

In many ways, humankind’s pivot towards online, “dematerialised” media has been good for the environment. Think of all the physical waste that’s been saved by consumers embracing digital music platforms like Spotify instead of buying plastic-wrapped CDs and vinyl records, for example.

The issue, though, is that dense online video is not completely dematerialised. All those seasons of Stranger Things and seemingly infinite caches of homemade porn are stored in data centres, and brought to you by physical networks of cables, optical fibres, and modems. All of those things in turn require electricity, the production of which usually involves emissions of CO2.

This side-effect is true of all forms of online media, of course—but the problem for video, especially pornographic video, is one of unprecedented demand. Video is a relatively dense medium of digital information, and as an increasing number of people log on to streaming services on a regular basis, the amount of electricity required to meet that demand is surging. In 2017, Atlantic reporter Matt Kessler observed that “if pornography experts’ estimates are accurate, they suggest a rare scenario where digitisation might have increased the overall consumption of porn so much that the principal [sic] of dematerialisation gets flipped on its head.

“The internet could allow people to spend so much time looking at porn that it’s actually worse for the environment.”

The Shift Project report’s authors estimate that online video streaming represents about 20 percent of the greenhouse gas emissions coming from all digital devices—including both their use and production—and that it probably accounts for about 1 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions overall. To reach this number, researchers calculated global video internet traffic—using 2018 reports by networking and tech companies Cisco and Sandvine—and estimated how much electricity was needed for this video data to be carried devices such as phones, laptops, and TVs. Then they estimated the amount of carbon that would have been emitted as a result, using global average figures.

Porn accounts for 27 percent of all the world’s online video traffic, they found, and in 2018 it was responsible for generating the same amount of CO2 as all the households in France. The annual greenhouse gas emissions from video-on-demand services like Netflix and Amazon Prime, meanwhile, are roughly equivalent to those of a country like Chile. Speaking to New Scientist, Chris Preist of the University of Bristol, UK—who studies the sustainability of technology—said these estimates are more or less in line with others.

“For individuals, upgrading our devices less often, owning less devices, and not demanding mobile high quality internet connection everywhere are probably the most important actions we can take,” Chris suggested. But what else can we do about all this environmentally unfriendly porn that’s being beamed from our screens?

The report’s authors broadly suggest a shift towards “digital sobriety”: a process that includes using the lowest definition video possible, reducing one’s consumption, and “being more selective about what one watches”. No more racking up 10 tabs of video in 4K resolution, in other words. They also stress that “addictive designs” such as embedded videos and autoplay are “incompatible with digital sobriety”, and encourage distributors and service providers to implement systems to curb unnecessary traffic.

It’s also probably worth mentioning that the figures in this report are estimates, and ought to be treated as such. But if nothing else, the rather grim implication that our increasing appetite for porn is destroying the planet might remind us to practice moderation. As Nathan Ensmenger, a professor at Indiana University, told The Atlantic: “while Pornhub may be using an enormous amount of electricity, none of us are paying that electrical bill in any way that impacts our behaviour."

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