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It's Not Easy Streaming Green

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The welcome drop in emissions and other environmentally damaging activity during the various COVID lockdowns has received a lot of media attention lately. However decades of environmental damage does not evaporate after spending a few weeks indoors and not sitting in traffic. Even with the economy at a temporary standstill, we have still been setting new records for dumping carbon into the atmosphere.   

At the same time, video-streaming volumes have ballooned during the lockdown, fueled by the launch of new services in 2020.

But there hasn’t been much conversation about the environmental impact of streaming, especially given the huge uptick in usage that we’ve seen during the lockdown. Growth trends show streaming will eclipse linear TV as the primary consumption method for video content.  But is this another one of those developments where convenience translates to a step backwards for the planet? 

It’s useful in looking at this question to assess the true cost of the accelerated switch from TV and DVD production/distribution to online streaming. So, where will the trends accelerated by the pandemic ultimately take us in terms of environmental impact? It is all connected to the energy use and carbon emissions of streaming, which are high due to everything involved: the devices themselves, networks and their infrastructure. 

High Streaming Volumes = High Energy Consumption

For the US, 328M consumers in 119M households. Nielsen’s Total Audience Report found 19% of US TV viewing streamed in 2019. Streaming was up year-on-year, an average of 38 minutes a day per consumer.  

Live TV consumption during this period hit nearly 3.5 hours a day. With 119M TV households and co-viewing by family members and roommates, overall viewing is nearly eight hours of linear TV per household per day. Using the same math for streaming, at 19% of viewing, you get 91 minutes streamed per household, per day in 2019.  

According to Conviva, the recent COVID-caused lockdown increased streaming 20% in Q1 (and far more in Q2 by all available evidence). That equates to 218M hours streamed per day, a number that’s still growing.

In 2020, the lack of live sports has helped infrastructure hold up, even as services like Zoom have been widely adopted. Cisco estimates that 82% of all internet traffic will be video by 2022. If consumer demand remains strong, video will be a huge driver of investment, forcing network infrastructure to keep up with demand. 

This shift in behavior from broadcast to streamed TV is driven mostly by convenience and consumer-spending habits. If the global middle class of 3.8B were to adopt the same viewing habits as the US that would scale hours by a factor of more than 10. We are definitely seeing this transition accelerate around the world, most dramatically in India and Southeast Asia, where countries have skipped the cable era altogether and gone straight to streaming for TV and VOD delivery.  

How Much Energy Do We Consume Watching?

Linear TV

So let’s look at the cost of streaming vs. old-fashioned linear TV.  Modern TVs are generally low-power devices, especially when receiving a signal from an external source such as a cable box or streaming device. 

A 42” TV uses somewhere around 160 watts per hour, or 560 watts per day for the 3.5 hours of daily viewing. Add in around six watts an hour for standby, and that TV eats 683 watts a day.

The power consumption of traditional TV is compounded by set-top boxes, which often have built-in DVRs and other features that use a lot of power. Your average set-top box (STB) uses 480 watts per day, although it’s worth noting the industry has done great work reducing the power drain. New STBs are down 40% since 2012. STBs typically have a 10-year life span, though, which means there are lots of older boxes still in use.

So if you assume a best case of a modern TV and STB, you get a combined 1,163 watts average power consumption per household per day. Scale up to America’s 119M homes and it’s around 138GWh per year. In 2018, America produced 449 grams of CO2 per kWh of energy, so linear TV consumption is responsible for 62M tons of CO2 a year in the US. This is quite a lot, for context, all of Israel produced only 60M tons of carbon in 2016.

Streaming

For streaming devices, it’s difficult to find up-to-date numbers for individual services. Luckily, the aggregate math has already been done by the US Department of Energy’s Berkeley National Laboratory. The lab published an excellent peer-reviewed paper that estimates streaming generates 0.4 kilos of carbon for every streaming hour watched. Take the 2020 estimate of 109 minutes a day x 119M homes x 365 days, and you get 79B hours of streaming video watched per year. In turn, that translates to 31.6M tons of CO2 per year. 

So streaming is basically twice the emissions of linear TV. More worryingly if the entire global middle class of 3.8B consumers were to switch to streaming it would be responsible for 3.6% of global emissions, which is more than the aviation industry.

What’s Next?

You should now see that work urgently needs to be done to flatten these emissions before it reaches anything like 3.6%. This article might seem like I’m suggesting we’re taking a step backwards as we cut the cord. But realizing that there is an issue is the first step in addressing it.

When the stakes are high around streaming, brilliant people will get to work. We’re already seeing better compression and the greening of key infrastructure in response to the challenge. Further improvements will come with serverless architecture, hybrid forms of stream delivery (i.e., ATSC3) and more efficient edge infrastructure. These new technologies are likely to flatten emissions growth. But given the raw scale of the numbers, it's important we keep these issues visible and front of mind for the industry. 

[Editor's note: This is a contributed article from Ramprate. Streaming Media accepts vendor bylines solely on the basis of their value to our readers.]

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