Streaming services have grown in popularity over the past two decades, resulting in a lot of people switching from cable to streaming. Original content available only through streaming providers has accelerated the switch.
Its popularity has also resulted in a lot of different services, with Netflix, Hulu, Amazon Prime Video, Disney+, and YouTube TV topping the charts.
Streaming TV shows and movies aren’t as bad for the environment as some people claim. The bulk of electricity consumption and greenhouse gas emissions are attributed to data centers. Individual use, especially on smart devices and not on TV, contributes very little. Streaming TV shows is more energy-efficient than conventional set-top boxes, especially in the US.
How does streaming TV affect the environment?
Streaming services like Netflix and Amazon Prime Video store videos in data centers, which can then be sent to our devices through networks like cables, modems, and mobile networks. The majority of greenhouse gas emissions from streaming services come from the electricity required to store and transfer this data.
A study into the sustainability of online video found that storing and transferring emit greenhouse gases equal to 0.3% of global emissions. That’s equivalent to all the greenhouse gas emissions from Chile. This includes video on demand services (like Netflix), pornography, YouTube, and social media like TikTok.
Streaming services accounted for 34% of online video data transference in 2018. Overall, online video data transference accounted for over 306 million tons of carbon dioxide emissions in that year.
Watching higher quality content, such as 4k or 8k resolution, consumes even more data and electricity. Watching videos at 480p or even 720p resolution is therefore better for the environment.
Data centers are expected to consume more than double the amount of electricity they currently use within the next decade. In 2018, data centers were estimated to use 200 terawatt-hours of energy each year.
Not only do data centers store data, but they also need other critical and ancillary equipment. This includes lights, cooling systems, monitors, humidifiers, and security systems. Servers account for 43% of electricity use.
There are no official statistics on how much energy is used by data centers. It’s thought that watching 30 minutes of a Netflix show generates emissions equivalent to driving four miles, at 1.6kg of carbon dioxide. This assumes that data centers providing Netflix with storage alone uses around 370 terawatt-hours per year.
What is the carbon footprint of streaming your favorite TV show?
There are no current peer-reviewed estimates for how much electricity is consumed by streaming TV shows.
Netflix’s 2019 sustainability accounting standards board report states that the total energy consumed in a year was 94,000 megawatt-hours, with 100% of this electricity from renewable sources. They mention that some of their direct energy use is from non-renewable services which they “match 100 percent of that portion with regional renewable energy certificates”.
The International Energy Agency has questioned The Shift Project’s study, stating that it has overestimated the energy use of data transmission networks, and that 30 minutes of a Netflix show could not generate the emissions equivalent to driving four miles. Instead, the IEA estimates that streaming a Netflix video “typically consumed around 0.077kWh of electricity per hour”, but this amount also depends on what device, resolution, and type of network connection used.
A 50-inch LED television will naturally consume more electricity than a smartphone or laptop – approximately 100 times more than a smartphone and 5 times more than a laptop. Netflix estimates that 70% of viewing occurs on TVs.
The IEA estimates that a 30-minute show on Netflix releases around 0.018kg of carbon dioxide emissions, the equivalent of driving around 100 meters in a “conventional car”.
If you want more personalized data, The Shift Project has developed a Mozilla Firefox add-on that allows you to visualize your electricity consumption and greenhouse gas emissions. Carbonalyser shows you which websites you went on, how much data you downloaded, and what your CO2 emissions are equivalent to.
Is streaming TV shows better or worse for the environment than watching them live?
Given that televisions consume more electricity overall than a smartphone or laptop, if you stream TV shows on either of the latter devices you can be confident that it’s more environmentally friendly than watching them live.
The National Resources Defense Council found that around 160 million set-top boxes in the US – which are owned and installed by cable, satellite, phone, or other service providers – used approximately 27 billion kilowatt-hours of electricity in 2010. They continue to operate at near full power “even when the consumer is neither watching nor recording a show”.
You would have to manually turn off your set-top box at all hours except for when you want to watch TV to curb the amount of electricity consumed by it. This isn’t practical for many households, especially with children.
While streaming TV shows use less energy and emit fewer greenhouse gases than typical set-top boxes, Internet-based systems with a low-energy set-top box would be more eco-friendly than cable or satellite provider boxes. But if you don’t have the choice, you’d be better off using your set-top box instead of streaming to reduce the amount of electricity you’re using.
Does watching Netflix harm the planet?
Watching Netflix alone doesn’t harm the planet any more than it would already be generating emissions and consuming electricity. One household doesn’t make much of a difference given their annual consumption levels.
Netflix claims to use 100% renewable energy and aims to achieve net-zero greenhouse gas emissions by the end of 2022, which makes it more sustainable than competitor Amazon, which aims for net-zero carbon emissions by 2040. Statistics aren’t available for Amazon Prime Video alone, but the company overall says that they are “on a path to powering our operations with 100% renewable energy by 2025”.
Amazon also promised to power “all of its data centers with renewable energy in the long-term” back in 2014. This was reported by WIRED, who then in 2019 rated Amazon’s cloud service C- for greenness. Greenpeace also accused Amazon of breaking their commitment to powering their cloud service with renewable energy. No data is provided by Amazon to prove their commitment.
Based on this, if your choice is between Amazon Prime or Netflix then it’s safe to say that Netflix is more reliable and honest with their sustainability. The environmental impact of Netflix is largely reduced by the company themselves, and Netflix is known to be a better choice when comparing video streaming services alone.
You can reduce the impact of using Netflix by using the smartphone and tablet app or watching on a laptop or PC instead of your TV.
Other ways of reducing your environmental impact by streaming include:
- Turn off high-definition settings when watching on a small screen – you won’t be able to tell the difference and it saves data
- Stream over Wi-Fi, not your mobile network
- Disable autoplay for previews
Is binging Netflix bad for the environment?
Binging Netflix isn’t any worse for the environment than watching one episode a week, though it might shave off a gram or two of carbon dioxide emissions simply because you’re not turning it on and off in between episodes.
The problem mostly comes with if you leave Netflix running while you’re doing other things or if you fall asleep through a binge. If you miss an episode that’s already played, you’ll have to rewind or start the episode again, which is a waste of electricity. Make sure to pause when you need to.
If you tend to fall asleep during movies or TV shows, try to find that sweet spot where you start to feel tired and turn off ahead of time.