We are so used to the idea that the internet is intangible and all in the cloud that it’s hard to appreciate the impact digital technology actually has on the climate. However, using the web and manufacturing devices that connect to it consumes lots of energy and generates CO2. Watching online videos — which accounts for 60% of the world’s data traffic — has a carbon footprint similar to that of the emissions produced by Spain. These amounted to 306 million tonnes in 2018: almost 1% of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions. Something must be done and it starts with our relationship with our screens.
Binge-watching: the climate’s worst enemy?
Well, well, well. Who would have thought that an innocent Netflix session, sharing a video on Facebook or flicking through an Instagram or YouTube video feed could have such an impact? To give you an idea, on-demand video services (like Netflix and Amazon Prime) generate as much CO2 as Chile, according to a Shift Project study.
How? You have to manufacture the devices that connect us to the internet (our computers, tablets and smartphones), then store the information in data centres and share it on networks. This all uses electricity, 85% of which is produced by burning fossil fuels (according to a BP study). The results can be absurd: storing just 10 hours of film requires more energy than all the Wikipedia articles in English.
And because online video uses 80% of the internet’s bandwidth and we are watching more and more of it, we will need to find a system of stopping this affecting the other ways we use the internet. We could simply increase storage capacity by building new infrastructure and updating our hardware to make it compatible, too bad for our old smartphones and the electronic waste that would be generated.
Or, we could look again at how we use the web, starting with video-watching.
The art of green-watching: what can we do to reduce our footprint on the web?
1. Extend our electronic devices’ lives
Before changing how we watch online videos, let’s remember that the longer our smartphones, computers, tablets and TVs last, the less pollution we’re responsible for. So, the first stage is extending our devices’ lives and buying refurbished products.
- Manufacturing a smartphone produces between 50 and 100 kg of greenhouse gases.
- Smartphones contain rare-earth elements. As the name suggests, they are running out fast. Extracting them also releases toxic substances into the environment.
2. Unplug your router and disconnect devices when not in use
Next, it’s about not having your “head in the clouds” when you aren’t connected. Consider unplugging your router and television, and disconnecting your internet devices when you’ve finished watching.
- Keeping your router permanently plugged in obviously consumes more electricity than only turning it on when in use (so far, so good).
- The lion’s share of the internet’s ecological footprint comes from the “last mile”: relay masts for mobile networks and Wi-Fi routers.
3. Try to use Wi-Fi over 3G/4G/5G
Your smartphone chip will consume differently depending on the type of mobile network you use (2G, 3G or 4G) and where you are. If you have bad signal, put your phone on aeroplane mode and return to your video when you’re somewhere with better coverage. However, 2G uses less data than 3G, which consumes less than 4G. It’s up to you to adapt to suit your needs. You can change your preferred network type in your smartphone settings (“Connections > Mobile networks” on Android).
And if you’re somewhere with Wi-Fi, turn off your mobile data!
- A 4G internet connection consumes 20 times more energy than a router as it uses the relay masts much more.
- We also need more of these masts to provide enough bandwidth to cover everyone’s growing needs.
4. Use your phone rather than a 3D HD 4K TV
The higher a video’s resolution, the more energy is used by watching it. So, if you can, watch videos in a lower definition and on a smaller screen.
5. Limit your online video watching and social media video sharing
It’s not hard to work out what to do for the best. Fewer videos watched online = less pollution generated. In a world struggling with climate change, it may be time to be more selective about the content we watch and share. It’s also the moment to take back control of our time. If there’s a series or film you want to watch, consider buying the DVD. Making a DVD uses as much CO2 as one online viewing.
And — why not? — a little bonus for the road: consider turning off video autoplay. You can kill two birds with one stone by relieving your addiction and stopping videos loading!
And there you have it. By doing some of these simple things, you will make a significant contribution to the fight against global warming. Obviously, it won’t solve everything and online video platforms also need to do their bit, but that’s a subject for another day.