Good practices for a sustainable streaming

The environmental footprint of digital is equivalent to that of civil air transport. Video accounts for 80% of data transfer on the Internet and 20% of greenhouse gas emissions from digital technology. A responsible or sustainable attitude consists in showing moderation, avoiding excesses, using appropriate means to satisfy a need.

· Usage,Sustainability

Responsible Streaming is an approach that has three objectives :

  1. to measure GHG emissions from streaming
  2. to reduce these emissions
  3. to contribute to the sequestration of carbon

The need for responsible streaming

The environmental footprint of digital is equivalent to that of civil air transport. Video accounts for 80% of data transfer on the Internet (There is also abusive use of the term "bandwidth consumption") and 20% of greenhouse gas emissions from digital technology. This transfer is constantly growing with the multiplication of smartphones, the explosion of social networks, the increase in the resolution of streams and the delinearization of television.

A responsible or sustainable attitude consists in showing moderation, avoiding excesses, using appropriate means to satisfy a need.

The public or consumers cannot be expected to voluntarily do without a comfort offered to them, even if they know it is superfluous. Who would choose to degrade the playback quality of a video to reduce data flow and associated greenhouse gas emissions? Individual gestures are often perceived as insignificant. Only a group dynamic can motivate people to change their behaviour, with the perception their action will become more efficient.

With the best will in the world, individuals can only achieve by their actions a quarter of the GHG emission reduction target set by the Paris agreement. The target can only be achieved if companies and administrations provide the remaining three-quarters. In addition to "doing their part" in the effort, they can set virtuous examples and educate individuals to adopt responsible behaviour.

With this note, we propose "actions for the environment" for companies and organisations that manage and distribute online videos. Here are at least three good reasons to adopt them:

  • savings to be made through more digital sobriety
  • commitments to be credited to the CSR balance sheet
  • a strong message in internal or external communication

The impact of the various proposed actions varies greatly, but none of them are useless. It is the small streams that make the big rivers. Small gestures of low impact are often the simplest to carry out and their symbolic value can be very strong.

Good practices applicable by producers and broadcasters of digital content.

In summary, here is the Responsible Streaming approach advocated by Streamlike :

  • Measure the GHG emissions related to your digital business. Seek to reduce them and contribute to CO2 sequestration to the extent of your emissions.
  • Combine all the eco-design solutions at your disposal: adaptive streaming, bandwidth limitation, no autoplay, reduction of preloaded data (player and media), relevance of content associations etc...
  • Move little consulted media to a "cold" storage.
  • On social networks and messaging, share rather than publish. 

Individual good practices

On an individual level, don't be under any illusions: even if you make an effort, you will always continue to consume more digital. But it should not stop you from doing your best.

What everyone can do is to weigh the pros and cons, the benefits and consequences of each of their actions. It's not a question of giving up all the comforts of digital, but of using them wisely.

For example, if you buy a movie on VOD, don't force yourself to watch it on your smartphone on the grounds that it uses 10 times less energy than your TV, 3 times less than a laptop or 1.6 times less than a tablet. On the other hand, avoid flying to London for a weekend...

Let's start with an observation: You won't necessarily have the choice to consume less data and use less energy because the offer of services and equipment will prevent you from doing so.

Virtually all new television sets have a 4K resolution while there are very few programmes at this resolution. A 4K TV consumes 30% more energy than an HDTV. The amount of data broadcast is 2.3 times greater. And 8K is coming...

Internet connection speed has long been a limiting factor. With fiber and the arrival of 5G, the volume of data will continue to increase, requiring more and more network infrastructure and data centers.

This video is bad for climate change...

Video produced by The Shift Project to warn about the necessary changes in individual behaviors:

Pay streaming

It is important to distinguish between videos or musics for which you pay and those that are free.

If you pay for a subscription to a VOD or audio streaming platform, you are its customer and you can demand that it practices sustainable streaming. If you are a "binge watcher", you know that it is not without impact for the planet but you can influence the platform you have subscribed to so that it contributes to the decarbonation of its activity. Not easy, but possible: You buy a service, not a right to pollute, and you have a say on its environmental policy. In 2017, Greenpeace compared the "cleanliness" of many services and applications:

As a user, you can at least choose a stream quality suitable for your terminal: Do not activate 4K if your TV, computer or tablet only displays HD.

Free videos

As far as free videos on social networks are concerned, you are the product. The authors count on you to ensure their distribution. Either they get paid on your personal data and advertising, or the social network takes advantage of the audience you offer him, always by exploiting your personal data and through advertising.

The more you watch "free" videos or the more you share them, the warmer the planet gets because no one cares about absorbing the greenhouse gases you have emitted or contributed to emitting.

Don't succumb to all the videos that flood the social networks and entice you with "sensational", "you won't believe it", "just hilarious", "watch it to the end, the fall is just extraordinary"... By watching them, you're contributing to global warming. Consider well that in the end, the one who generates greenhouse gases is the one who watches, not the one who broadcasts. If you don't watch, the video is not broadcast!

Disable video autoplay on your social network walls. Avoid sites that play videos you didn't request while you came looking for something else. As for video ads, they also have an environmental impact but their existence is generally the counterpart of free content.

Before you share or publish a video, think about whether it's an environmentally neutral act and ask yourself if it's worth the price. By sharing a video, you lead your friends and followers to emit GHGs when they may not be aware of it. These emissions become exponential if they in turn share the video. Viral videos behave like viruses: you can spread them and be responsible for the environmental consequences of your sharing, or you can stop their spread.

As an example, a 30 second video of a dog on a skateboard in low quality (500 Kbps) shared 1 million times will emit about 320 Kg of CO2 or the equivalent of a 1500 Km drive in a car.

Other effective actions

The University of Bristol has quantified the impact of a fairly common practice: music videos account for 27% of what is viewed on YouTube, but between 10 and 50% is simply listened to without being watched. If audio were broadcast alone, the reduction in greenhouse gas emissions would be between 100 and 600 KT of CO2 equivalent per year, or between 0.5 and 3.5 days of traffic for the entire French passenger car fleet! The lesson to be learned is that it is better to listen to music on music platforms than on YouTube. The volume of data transferred - and the environmental impact - will be about 30 times less.

When a TV channel is broadcast on DTT, satellite and on the internet (via its site, an application or your box), prefer DTT or satellite. Via the internet, distribution is individual, whereas in terrestrial reception, the energy used is the same regardless of the number of viewers.

The case of streaming video games

This is not strictly speaking online video, but the impact of network games is even worse. When the data rate of a Full HD video is around 8 Mbps on Netflix (and it's already high...), it's double for a game like Red Redemption2 streamed at 60 fps. In 4K, the bitrate increases to 45 Mbps, which is almost 6 times more than an HD video! The environmental impact is proportional. Imagine the impact of future games in 8K, HDR, at 120 fps...

The video game industry claims to be concerned about the issue with the United Nations' "Playing for the Planet" initiative. Don’t be fooled: their plan is to offer a "low consumption" mode on consoles -which nobody will use-, "to integrate environmental themes into video games" or "to disseminate messages related to environmental protection", for effects to be observed in 2030!

The ultimate illustration of today's excesses is this incentive video (addictive design) seen on a social network, which invites you to watch, download or share a demo video of a game in 8K: 16 GB for 15 minutes of video, i.e. a bit rate of 149 Mbps, 20 times higher than that of a Full HD video! Is it really necessary to click?

Sobriety or degrowth

In the end, is streaming bad? Is digital decay the solution?

Streaming a movie consumes about as much energy as producing a DVD and sending it by mail. On the other hand, less non-recyclable waste is generated.

Between 2000 and 2016, the dematerialization of music avoided the use of 53,000 tons of plastic... but total carbon emissions increased.

The issue is not to eliminate digital technologies from our lives to save the planet, but to rethink the way we use them.

“Sustainable streaming" is as much a matter of individual behaviour as it is of the exemplary behaviour of broadcasters, be they platforms, media, companies, game publishers or hosting providers. 

Nothing is free or unlimited, and especially not the natural resources consumed by digital technology. We must know how to resist the temptation of technological outbidding and digital over-consumption.

It is possible to reduce without regressing. All that is needed is to behave as a responsible broadcaster or consumer, demonstrating digital sobriety.

It is up to everyone to do their part. Streamlike is doing its own.

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