What's worse for the planet? Driving to the supermarket for your weekly shopping or spending all day on Zoom calls while binging The Office on repeat? Now, finally, we have an answer. Sort of.
For the first time, Netflix has revealed specific details about its carbon footprint. Using a tool called DIMPACT, developed by researchers at the University of Bristol, Netflix claims that one hour of streaming on its platform in 2020 used less than 100 grams of CO2e (carbon dioxide equivalent)—that’s less than driving an average car a quarter of a mile. For people binging Netflix, that’s useful context—but for the streaming giant, it provides crucial data to help it reduce its vast carbon footprint.
"The BBC or Netflix, or any other provider, can't just connect a power meter to the infrastructure and find out how much carbon was released into the atmosphere," says Daniel Schien, one of DIMPACT's creators and a lecturer in computer science at the University of Bristol. And this is where DIMPACT comes in.
The tool, which is partially industry-funded, is essentially an elaborate calculator built to help digital media companies map and manage their carbon footprints. There are four modules, each representing different sectors—video streaming, advertising, publishing, and business intelligence. In Netflix’s case, Schien explains, the video streaming module consists of a superset of all the processes that Netflix would find in its organization: a simulation of our favorite show reaching us from a data center, for instance.
The benefit here is that DIMPACT can give detailed information on a company's Scope 3 emissions—that’s the pollution caused by suppliers and customers. "For media companies, if you're involved in entertainment, then Scope 3 would be the upstream production of films," explains Christian Tonnesen, a senior partner at Carnstone, an independent management consultancy involved in the project. "And downstream it would be you delivering the media content, and also people consuming that content. So any company in the media sector that is setting a science-based target now has to get a good understanding of these Scope 3 emissions."
Cutting emissions is essential if Netflix is to reduce its carbon footprint. In this regard, Netflix has lagged behind its competition. In January 2020 Microsoft promised to go carbon-negative by 2030; later that year, Apple announced its own plans to become carbon-neutral by the same date. Facebook has also committed to net-zero emissions from all suppliers and users, and Google has promised to run on exclusively renewable energy. In contrast, as The New York Times pointed out last month, Netflix has not announced targets for reducing emissions, despite saying it wants to reduce its impact on the climate.
These new figures are an attempt to rectify this situation. Netflix expects a white paper due to be released at the end of March by the Carbon Trust to confirm its findings, and says that it will reveal its climate targets this spring. For now, it has used DIMPACT to work out that one hour of streaming is equivalent to a typical 75-watt ceiling fan running for four hours in North America or six hours in Europe, or a typical 1,000-watt window air conditioner running for 15 minutes in North America or 40 minutes in Europe.
"My first impression about that claim is that it seems reasonable," says Bernardi Pranggono, a senior lecturer in computer network engineering at Sheffield Hallam University. But streaming, he explains, matters comparatively. So what might people do instead of sitting at home watching The Office on Netflix? If they went outside for a walk, this would be greener. But if they drove for 30 minutes to go to the cinema, it wouldn’t.
The tool lets Netflix identify emissions hot spots so it can redesign its services to make them greener. TV shows streamed by users in the UK could be hosted by data centers in the UK, for example. Or devices could be switched off more quickly if nobody is watching what’s being streamed. Netflix will also be able to speak to other companies in its supply chain—such as Amazon Web Services, which it uses for hosting—to help reduce emissions.
"I think the exciting bit now is that organizations want to use DIMPACT to green their services," says Schien. "So what it gives you is a ranking of where in the system the hot spots are. And the natural thing to do, with a view to those science-based targets, is to think about how you can reduce the footprint of those services."
This isn’t the first time digital giants have used tools like DIMPACT. Back in 2020, the BBC released a white paper detailing the carbon footprint of its streaming services. And in 2019 another report coauthored by Schien estimated YouTube's annual carbon footprint was about 10 million metric tons of CO2e—about the annual output of a city the size of Glasgow—and could be significantly reduced if people listened to music without the video.
Netflix isn't the only company using DIMPACT right now, either. The BBC, ITV and Sky are also involved. A spokesperson from ITV says that, like Netflix, the tool will help it to find and target hot spots and reduce emissions. Making such decisions based on accurate data is crucial if digital media companies are to get a grip on their carbon footprints.
The impact of video streaming has been plagued by misinformation. Last year, it was claimed in an episode of Channel 4 Dispatches that the 7 billion YouTube views of the hit song “Despacito” amounted to a figure that would mean YouTube required more electricity annually than is used by all the data centers and data transmission networks in the world. Similar inaccurate claims have been debunked by research from the International Energy Agency, Carbon Brief, and the World Economic Forum. Many false claims about the carbon impact of streaming—such as 30 minutes of streaming being the equivalent of driving four miles—are based on a flawed report published in July 2019 by the Shift Project, a French think tank. The actual figure is estimated to be up to 90 times lower.
But streaming still has a substantial environmental impact. And Netflix has a long way to go to reduce its carbon footprint. “There have been a lot of alarmist, misleading, and plain wrong calculations before,” says Schien. “I have no ax to grind. I'm passionate about the environment, and I want to assess the environmental impact of these services.”
This story originally appeared on WIRED UK.
Update 3-19-21 10am: This story has been updated to clarify that the white paper expected to confirm Netflix's findings is being authored by the Carbon Trust. The BBC's research paper was also released in 2020, not 2016.