Streaming Sustainably: Simple Steps to Minimise Carbon Footprint

BLOG by Mark Johns, CEO, Switch Media

Because streaming is done digitally, you wouldn’t necessarily expect it to have a carbon footprint, however this is not the case. Many of us are becoming much more environmentally aware, we consider how our lifestyles impact our carbon footprint and make changes to reduce that. With the streaming industry growing rapidly, it’s important that we make the same considerations when it comes to video consumption. Zoom and Teams are now an integral part of our daily lives and were hugely beneficial when Covid put us in lockdown. We’re now accustomed to regular video calls which are an extremely useful tool as businesses make concerted efforts to reduce their staff’s airmiles and continue to let them work from home.

But this comes with a caveat….

A study conducted by Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Purdue University, and Yale University in 2021 found that, “turning your camera off during a videoconference can reduce your environmental footprint in that meeting by 96 percent.” That’s a significant number and let’s be honest – there are times when we’d all prefer our camera to be switched off anyhow! The study also found that, “One hour of streaming or videoconferencing can emit between 150 and 1,000 grams of carbon dioxide, depending on the service. By comparison, a car produces about 8,887 grams from burning nearly 4 litres of petrol. That hour also requires 2-12 litres of water and a land area about the size of an iPad Mini.”

It’s not just videoconferencing that we’re talking about here. We also need to be aware of our TV viewing habits. A Carbon Trust study looking at the carbon impact of online streaming in 2021 found that, “The average carbon footprint in Europe per hour of video streaming is approximately 55gCO2e, equivalent to boiling an average electric kettle three times.” We all want to continue watching the content that we love so how do we do that in the same environmentally friendly way that we do in other areas of our lives?

According to the MIT study, streaming content in SD rather than HD can make a huge difference to our carbon footprint. “A popular streaming service requires 7 gigabytes per hour of high-quality video streaming, translating to an average of 441 g CO2e (grams per carbon dioxide equivalent) per hour. If someone is streaming for four hours a day at this quality for a month, the emissions rise to 53 kg CO2e. However, if that person were to instead stream in standard definition, the monthly footprint would only be 2.5 kg CO2e.” The emissions saved would be equivalent to driving a car from Sydney to Newcastle about 150km.” That’s a small sacrifice to make for a significant reward! We all love watching movies and sporting events in HD, but do we need to watch in HD every time? Probably not.

The device that we choose to watch on can also make a difference. The Carbon Trust research showed that, “the footprint (related specifically to the energy use of the viewing device) of watching on a 50-inch TV is shown to be roughly 4.5 times that of watching on a laptop, and roughly 90 times that of watching on a smartphone.”

As video consumers, we can all make a few minor changes to be more environmentally friendly. If we do, we’d collectively have a significant impact on the planet. We can still watch whatever we want, whenever we want but if we change our habits even just slightly, Mother Earth would hugely benefit.