The Invisible Danger - Online video, carbon emissions and the climate crisis
BY Georgi R. Chakarov
We have entered the age of online video. Digital entertainment services now dominate the daily lives of the biggest part of the population of the World. In a couple of years, novelties like streaming and binging have become the norm for daily entertainment of the modern individual. This year, internet video traffic is expected to generate 80% of all global consumer internet traffic. We are so used to it. It has become a part of our life, with studies showing that the largest majority of people nowadays can’t imagine life without their phone or the web. We simply take it as a safe and natural way to relax and pass the time of day in the digital age. However, a recent study by The Shift Project has unveiled the invisible danger behind excess digital consumption and its relation to climate change. The independent researchers found out that our daily digital activities generate more carbon emissions than the global civil aviation and this could double by 2025 to reach the level of global car emissions! The findings also point to video consumption as the biggest generator of greenhouse emissions with 80% of the total digital technology use, while online video generated 306 million tons of CO2 in 2018, i.e. 1% of the global greenhouse gas emissions. This could seem like a small number, but it actually corresponds to the total emissions generated by Spain - the 13th biggest economy in the world. With the arrival of new online video services and higher resolution standards like 4K/8K and constantly increasing consumption, the impact on the environment could quickly grow to levels beyond the current forecasts. In short, today the digital evolution is not compatible with the global effort to reduce carbon emissions as the energy (80% of which is still provided by fossil fuels) consumption required for digital technologies is increasing by 9% every year. Georgi R. Chakarov spoke with Maxime Efoui-Hess, Project Manager of the Lean ICT - Towards a Digital Sobriety report, about the results of the study and what we could do on an individual, business and governmental level to eliminate the negative impact of digital video consumption on the climate system of the planet.
Maxime, could you tell us more about The Shift Project. What is its mission, how is it funded and who is it backed by?
The Shift Project is a think-tank advocating the shift to a post-carbon economy and working towards public interest. What we aim to do is to give an objective picture on what the situation is in the world concerning carbon transition. The Shift Project aims to start a debate about solutions by drawing the problems in an objective way thru reliable information. The Shift Project is about building competent tools for decision-makers like politicians and major companies which should push the world towards building a world with less carbon emissions. We are funded by big companies which are actually polluting, emitting large amounts of carbon because these companies do realize that what we are doing could be useful to them and every single figure and calculation sheet we produce is publicly available. But I want to emphasize that we do not service those companies, we just focus on objective calculations. They just take into account our studies in order to find solutions to decrease the carbon pollution.

So all of your studies are independent and not commissioned directly? Why did you decide to study the effects on the environment from watching online video?
Yes, the decisions regarding the studies are made independently. We try to address the question of carbon transition to every single sector of the economy. Why digital? Because it is often considered that it could be one of the best ways we could realize the carbon transition by changing business models. What we wanted to answer was “Are the digital technologies, which we really believe in, really an asset or not when it comes to carbon and energy transition?” and the answer is that it could be an asset only if we build them wisely and today that is not the case when it comes to carbon and energy consumption.

What type of data did you use to come up with these results?
We worked on the basis of different types of studies, a total of 170 – most of them academic, and all were dated after 2014 because digital technologies are something that is changing very fast and we wanted to have relevant (not outdated) information. We also took into account studies from public institutions and some studies commissioned by companies.

The results of your study are quite shocking. Right now, 4% of the greenhouse gas emissions are generated by digital technology and this could double by 2025 which corresponds to the current car emissions. But we all realize that digital technology consumption is something that will only continue to grow. What can we do about it?
What we need to do is think about how we make our digital world. We have to think about our habits. The technical innovation is something interesting only if we make it a part of the whole plan of actually reducing carbon emissions. For example, batteries have made great progress over the last few years, but we are still charging the phone every single day because we build technologies which demand more energy and as a result we are using more energy than before. That’s why we have to think about our user habits. We have to know if digitalizing something is a good idea, or just an idea. So, there are two ways of acting in this case. The first one is on individual level - I have to think what kind of network I use because there is a difference of 5 to 25 times in energy consumption. If I use Wi-Fi and limit the usage of mobile data, I use less energy. So, we have to ask ourselves “Am I doing something because I really want to, or because the platform I’m using is making me do that?” For example, with videos it is very clear because if I’m watching 10 hours of videos that is not necessarily because I want to. This kind of behavior happens on a large scale on Netflix and that comes from the fact that they have designed their platform to make us watch a lot of content.

Your study shows that Netflix and Amazon alone are generating more emissions than Chile. What do you think the streaming companies need to do in order to reduce these negative effects? Should they invest money in ecology, green projects?
Actually, these digital companies like Netflix, Google, Apple think that if they put money into green projects they will balance the carbon emissions. But if you want to reduce carbon emissions you have to reduce them, and not try to make them less worrying. So, what they need to do is to rethink their business models and they have two options. The first one is to build a new model which is not about consuming more data which is not compatible with reducing emissions. The other option is to explicitly say that they don’t want to change their business model and don’t want to reduce emissions. Of course, they can keep saying that they want to but at the same to continue to build platforms which use more data and make us consume more. Because our behavior is the result of two things: our personal choices and the collective building of our habits which involves the design of platforms that influence our decisions on a subconscious level.

These companies are pumping billions of dollars into this industry which is believed to be the future of the entertainment industry. Are they even aware of this issue? We see Greta Thunberg sailing to New York but if she was watching online videos during that time she has actually generated more emissions than a flight would have. Does she know that?
Yes, the first step is to be aware of these issues. People who make decisions, like public servants and private companies, are not all aware of the consequences of their behavior and the decisions they make. At the same time, being aware of something isn’t enough to change your behavior that’s why we need to focus on public policies and the models of these platforms because yes you might know that Netflix generates carbon, but can you see it? Thus, it is very hard for the brain to do something without seeing the results. That’s why we need public policies to build collective guidelines which help us make the right decision. If don’t do that there is no way we can change our behavior in the right way.

What tools do you think would be needed for that? What should be the role of governments, NGOs in this process?
I think that we already have all tools and that is one of the main conclusions of our reports. We don’t need to invent anything new. We just need to regulate the digital behavior. We have institutions which have been created to regulate our actions. We have social scientists who know how our behavior is built so we have the theoretical basis to create these policies. We have designers who are already thinking about how they participate in the process of influencing our behavior. What we recommend is to get to the starting point that we need to reduce the emissions from digital consumption. Once we realize this, we can start working on changing the models.

Do you personally see the engagement to do this?
Every country in the world has signed the Paris Agreement and once again there are two options: to take the problem seriously and think how we are going to solve it, or to say we don’t want to change anything and wait and see what is going to happen. If the idea is just to improvise without trying to analyze what we could do in advance, we need an explicit statement on that and then we can close The Shift Project and calmly wait for the problem to manifest itself. But I do think that the governments of the world and even companies are aware that thinking of transition in advance is an asset for our systems and they do want to do something about this because climate change and planetary boundaries puts everything in danger, including the business of those companies.

We all realize that digital evolution can’t be stopped and now everyone talks about how 5G will positively change our lives. Do you agree with that?
I think that 5G is a technology which could certainly be useful in some cases. At The Shift Project we are always giving the same advice to everyone building digital technologies: you have to calculate the actual benefits when starting the process. So, if you want to make a Smart City, just be sure that it will have a positive effect on energy consumption.

Taking you back to the TV business… Would you say that traditional TV is eco-friendlier compared to digital platforms?
We don’t have actual figures on that for now but in most of the cases, the broadcasting technology is more energy efficient than unicast.

Are you working on more detailed studies into this area and are you planning to present the results to all the big players who are responsible in a way for this business and its effect on the environment?
What we are doing now is a series of reports. The first one was published in October 2018 and the second one on online video – in July this year. And now we will ask the questions of practical aspects of what we call digital sobriety. We are trying to build a different kind of methodology for companies and digital actors to ask the right questions and make the right calculations in order to build something smart when you want to digitalize something or build digital services.
Data traffic is responsible for more than half of digital technology’s global impact, with 55% of its annual energy consumption. Video flows represented 80% of global data flows in 2018 and 80% of the annual increase in their volume. In 2018, online video viewing (27% porn videos) generated more than 300 MtCO2, i.e. as much greenhouse gas as Spain emits. VOD represents 34% of online videos, 20% of total data flows and 7% of total GHG emissions due to digital technology usage. In 2018 the greenhouse gas emissions of VOD services were equivalent to those of a country like Chile (more than 100 MtCO2eq/year)
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