Netflix Disclaimer: Streaming Video Doesn’t Leave Big Carbon Footprint

As the pioneer and industry behemoth in subscription streaming video, Netflix has felt its share of pushback from environmentalists when it comes to the Internet, data storage and electricity usage that contribute to global warming and other climate-altering issues.

Netflix, which worked with sustainability researchers at The Carbon Trust in the U.K., assembling an authoritative white paper on the issue called “Carbon impact of video streaming,” found data to determine that streaming video in the home is not quite the environmental boogeyman as previously thought.

The streamer found that the emissions from an hour of streaming globally is well below 100gCO2e (grams of carbon dioxide equivalents), or less than driving a gas-powered vehicle a quarter mile.

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“Research brings us one step closer to accurately and consistently assessing the climate impact of streaming — be it from data centers, Internet providers, or device manufacturers, and entertainment and media companies who rely on streaming,” Emma Stewart, Ph.D., sustainability officer at Netflix, wrote in a post.

Specifically, Netflix found that the average carbon footprint of one hour of streaming in Europe is approximately 55 gCO2e. That’s about the same as microwaving four bags of popcorn. Netflix said previous media guesswork had this figure as high as 3200 gCO2e, or as much as microwaving 200 bags of popcorn.

In addition, adjusting picture resolution makes a very small difference in carbon emissions. For example, changing from standard-definition to 4K UHD resolution increases emissions from just under 1g CO2e/hour to just over 1g CO2e/hour. Why? The Internet is “always on,” so the additional energy it takes to transmit higher resolution to the TV is marginal compared to the energy it takes to constantly operate the Internet.

Netflix said past studies overestimated this increase to be as high as 500g CO2e/hour.

While streaming and Internet use have grown, energy consumption from those activities has actually decreased over time, according to the report. This is because data center, Internet and utilities providers can take on more demand without consuming more energy. They’re continually updating their equipment to be more energy efficient, as well as buying and using more renewable electricity.

Specifically, consumer devices such as TVs, laptops/PCs, smartphones, tablets make up more than half of the carbon emissions from streaming (over 50%), compared with other components such as data centers or internet service. Thus, the device one chooses to stream on can have a big impact on emissions and energy consumption. Devices, including TVs, are becoming more energy efficient over time.

“Better understanding this footprint means we can better focus on reducing those emissions across industries, countries and the world,” Stewart wrote.