Streaming Contributes to Greenhouse Gases
While we may generally think of big industry and cows when we think of greenhouse gases and climate change, everyday activities such as streaming music from your favorite app also contribute to greenhouse gases.
Streaming requires server farms, which are rows upon rows of powerful computer hard drives that store data, including songs, TV shows, and video games. Enormous amounts of energy are required to power the hard drives and keep them from overheating. In the most basic sense, when you stream media, the data must be transmitted from the hard drive in the server farm to a local access network using underground and undersea cables, using yet more energy. Once at your local network, the data is stored (cached) to reduce errors in repeat streams, using more energy. Then the data reaches your device, which requires energy to charge or power, using an internet connection, which, whether hard-wired or wireless, also requires energy. All of that energy use produces greenhouse gases.
Laura Marks, Grant Strate University Professor in the School for the Contemporary Arts at Simon Fraser University, added, “Streaming [re]lies on a massive infrastructure of data centers, networks, and devices, including computers, phones, and TVs. These are responsible for 3-4% of the global carbon footprint. This number is rising fast, despite efficiency measures, as demand for high-definition streaming increases and more infrastructure is built around the world. Streaming includes things like movies on demand (like Netflix and Hulu), YouTube, and other consumer-content channels (like games, social media, video conferencing, and video calling). It also includes new applications like Peloton.” Marks co-authored Streaming Media’s Environmental Impact.
Adam Met, writing for Rolling Stone, which links to Spotify’s 2020 report, explained: “Let’s look at an example: ‘Bang!’ by my band AJR, has more than 265 million streams on Spotify. If all of the plays were streamed from the cloud, ‘Bang!’ would have generated at least 3 ⅓ tons of greenhouse gas. This is the same as driving a car from New York to L.A. three times over. If all of the plays were downloads, ‘Bang!’ would have generated less than ⅔ of a ton.” Spotify released a 2021 report on Mar. 31, 2022.
A song with over 1.19 billion streams like BTS’s “Dynamite” contributed about 3,600 tonnes of carbon emissions from Spotify streaming alone in 2021. Carbon Trust estimated that over 151,000 trees would have to be planted to offset the emissions of that song’s streams in 2021 alone.
Spotify streams of Olivia Rodrigo’s single “Drivers License” between Jan. 2021 and Nov. 2021 produced about 4,180 tonnes of carbon emissions, according to New Statesman estimates. That’s more than the 3,944 tonnes produced by 4,000 roundtrip flights from London to New York, and more than the 2,830 tonnes representing the annual emissions of 500 people in the UK.
In Oct. 2021, Netflix reported fans watched about six billion hours of the streaming service’s top 10 shows, including Squid Games, Stranger Things, and Bridgerton, which equals an estimated 1.13 billion miles of car travel, about the same distance between Earth and Saturn.
Adam Met suggested that downloading a song (or album, TV show, etc) you’ll listen to repeatedly is more environmentally friendly. And some estimates indicate that buying a cd or vinyl copy of an album you’ll listen to more than 27 times or a dvd of a TV show or movie you’ll watch several times may be better than streaming.
However, Daniel Schien, Senior Lecturer in Computer Science at the University of Bristol, offered a word of balance: “Every little helps but the carbon intensity of streaming as a proportion of the economy is very small. Heating, mobility and food are the things we think most about. I’m not saying we don’t need to care about it, but something as innocent as muesli, with milk, has a higher carbon footprint than one hour streaming.”
1. What are the best solutions to climate change? Consider small and large solutions. Explain your answer.
2. What other common daily activities might you reconsider if they contribute to climate change? Explain your answer(s).
3. What should companies like Spotify and other industries do about climate change? Explain your answer.
1. Ellen Peirson-Hagger and Katharine Swindells, “How Environmentally Damaging Is Music Streaming?,” newstatesman.com, Nov. 5, 2021
2. Brightly, “Is Our Obsession with Netflix, Spotify, and Other Streaming Services Harming the Planet?,” brightly.eco, Mar. 23, 2022
3. Adam Met, “Protect the Planet: Stop Streaming Songs,” rollingstone.com, Apr. 22, 2022
4. Tamar Herman, “How BTS and Blackpink Spotify Streams Add to Climate-Change Problem – the Energy Used Generates Annual Carbon Emissions So Big, Whole Forests Need Planting to Offset Them,” scmp.com, Jan. 6, 2022
5. Mark Sweney, “Streaming’s Dirty Secret: How Viewing Netflix Top 10 Creates Vast Quantity of CO2,” theguardian.com, Oct. 29, 2021