Your Netflix subscription has a bigger carbon footprint than you think

The Amazon Prime Day strikes were an interesting reminder that technological innovation - and all the benefits it can bring - can’t be separated from materiality. Despite the radical way in which digital transformation has impacted our lives, the fact remains that the services and products that have been digitized for us are deeply embedded in boring, fleshy, meatspace.

A report by think tank The Shift Project - published today - highlights another way in which digital activity can have a material impact on the world. The crux of the report is this: online video, far from being a non-material format, in fact has a huge carbon footprint.

“Stored in data centers”, the report explains, “videos are transferred to our terminals (computers, smartphones etc.) via networks (cable, optical fiber, modems, mobile network antennae etc.): all these processes require electricity whose production consumes resources and usually involves CO2 emissions.”

Okay, perhaps this isn’t actually surprising. But with exceptionally high quality becoming more accessible - even to mobile users - in just a couple of years, it’s not hard to see how heavyweight video streaming is going to be taking its toll not only on your battery life, but also on the various touchpoints that comprise wider digital infrastructure.

The statistics

It’s only when you get into the stats that the scale of the problem starts to emerge.

  • In 2018, online video viewing produced as much greenhouse gas as Spain (300 million tonnes of CO2)

  • The streaming of pornographic material, meanwhile, produced 80 million tonnes of CO2 - the same, the report claims, as all French households.

What can we do about it?

Tackling climate change is a challenge that far exceeds our digital lives. But given its prominence in our lives - and the fact that it’s only going to grow as the population with an internet connection grows, this is something that poses difficult questions for everyone.

The Shift Project puts forward some bold ideas. Primarily focusing on the concept of ‘digital sobriety’, in which consumers adopt the same level of self-awareness that they seem to have around plastic and other material waste, it also takes aim at addictive design and argues for significant regulation - although it isn’t particularly specific about what that should be.

Where we go from here remains to be seen - but the report is nevertheless a vital reminder of the materiality of digital life. I wouldn’t hold my breath on regulation, and I certainly don’t expect any change from inside the tech industry, but rethinking how we understand our use of digital technology, and reframing it as something that is fundamentally material, is at least a start.