Friday , October 7 2022

Is Netflix Bad for the Environment? How streaming video contributes to climate change



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Sending dozens of emails a day, chatting with WhatsApp, uploading photos to the cloud, watching a short YouTube video clip: it's all part of the digital daily newspaper around the world. For the individual, this can be "just one picture" or "just a few minutes of video", but collectively, our collective Internet traffic contributes significantly to climate change.


Everything a computer, tablet, or smartphone requires electricity. And in order to generate this electricity, the world still uses mostly fossil fuels – which produce carbon dioxide and contribute to the capture of greenhouse gases.

Digital technologies have even surpassed the aviation industry in terms of carbon emissions. While the share of aviation in global CO2 emissions is estimated at around 2.5% and rising, now almost 4% of all CO2 emissions can be attributed to global data transfer and infrastructure, according to a recent study by the Paris think tank. Project Shift. The NGO is exploring ways to rethink the world economy so it can work with renewable energy.

"Limited Energy Resources"

The calculations include both the energy costs of creating IT infrastructure and the actual use of this infrastructure, the latter consuming 10 percentage points more electricity than the production of all equipment and technologies.

According to Cisco's giant IT forecast, by 2022 about 60% of the world's population will be online, with video representing more than 80% of all Internet traffic. Maxim Efui-Hess, energy and environmental expert in the Shift project and author of the study, said we should urgently review the future of internet use and think of a reduction.

"We have limited energy resources," he said, pointing out that even if we go to renewable energy sources, "the internet is something global, so every country in the world will need renewable energy." But he said the goal remains impossible in such a short time, which means we can not allow the use of the Internet to grow as fast as ever.

The largest share of this growth is now video traffic: 80% of all data transferred online is video data, with nearly 60% of them being online video, which means streaming video stored on a server and viewed remotely through sites like Netflix, YouTube, or Vimeo.

The problem: video transfers online are intense. In 2018, online video traffic is responsible for more than 300 million tonnes of CO2, equivalent to what a country whose size is Spain is released in one year – for all sectors together. The higher the resolution of the video, the more data is needed. Ten high-resolution movie spends more bits and bytes than all English articles in Wikipedia gathered together, according to the Shift project.

The way we consume videos and movies has also changed radically. In the past, the films have been telling a story of moving pictures and music; Today, online videos are mostly used to attract the attention of the person as long as possible. "It moves and there is a sound, and that's attractive to our brain," says Efui-Hess. "But it can lead to addiction.

Platforms such as YouTube, Facebook and Netflix are increasingly using this biological preference, he said. The Auto-Start feature allows the videos to start automatically, without sound and with subtitles, making the information even easier to consume. "It's just a way to get you to watch the whole video – and it works."

The last mile is crucial

Can this satisfying video hunger be satisfied to save the climate? Or should we go without our favorite TV series and movies? Efoui-Hess points out that it would really be better to watch something on standard television broadcasting – analogue radiation also consumes electricity, but data is transmitted only in a limited geographic area rather than in the middle of the world, as is the case with streaming video.

Lutz Stobbe, who studies the environmental impact of Information and Telecommunication Technologies at the Fraunhofer Institute of Integrity and Microintegration in Berlin, said that when it comes to data transfer, the last mile is crucial – both in the specific technology being used to input user data.

Mobile data transfer uses the most electricity. Major transmission losses, solid structures such as buildings, vegetation and weather conditions – in other words, time – can weaken electromagnetic waves and lead to video buffering. For this reason, the transmission signal should be increased, especially when the signal is transmitted over long distances through old copper cables.

"Power amplifiers have low electrical efficiency, which means that about half of the energy used to transmit data is lost as heat," Stobb said. "The most efficient transmission technology is fiber optic cables that transmit signals from light."

The Germans, for example, mainly surf the internet through copper cables; Since 2017, more than 2% of all broadband connections in the country have used fiber optic cables. By contrast, the mobile communications network is expanding massively.

To help save energy, Stobbe is currently working on something known as the ultimate calculation in which the desired data is stored locally, closer to users in places like data centers in major cities. This way, you do not have to travel so far to get to where it is going.

Exhausted machinery

Stobbe said those who hope the next-generation devices and processes will be more energy efficient will be disappointed. When it comes to technology, energy efficiency has not improved significantly over the last decade. So it's better to use older devices as long as possible, he said.

What remains is a small change in our daily lives. "This is called digital hygiene," Stob said. "Do you really need to upload 25 images of the same thing in the cloud?" Every picture, every video is constantly being archived for safety reasons, and that consumes energy each time.If you delete some things here and there, you can save energy instead . "

Efui-Hess is also a defender of minor changes. "Use Wi-Fi, not mobile networks, look at the smallest screen you can – and high-definition video on a smartphone is not really needed," he said, pointing out that watching high definition video on a smartphone through a cell phone network uses the most electricity and is therefore the worst for the climate.

To raise awareness of the impact of daily digital life on the climate, the Shift project has developed a browser add-on for a CO2 calculator that measures the emissions generated by Internet activity. Nonetheless, NGOs are not only responsible for the end-user; considers that the issue should be an important part of the political agenda. However, neither governments nor international institutions have so far realized the problem, and even less have made any effort to change.

Set up by permission from our media partner Deutsche Welle.

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