The Carbon Footprint Of ... Video Streaming and Games? It's A Thing

By Sergio Grce, CEO of iSIZE

What do you think of when someone mentions “carbon footprint?” The first things that would come to mind for most people would be factory emissions, private jets, and gridlock in major metropolitan areas. What many people don’t realize is depending on the technology used, streaming high-definition videos and games can also result in significant greenhouse gas emissions. That is because these services are associated with energy use and carbon emissions from devices, data centers, and network infrastructure.

In theory, the amount of energy needed to stream video content and play games is small. Collectively speaking, it adds up, especially when one also considers the greenhouse gases that are emitted. The overall footprint of streaming video depends most heavily on how the electricity is generated. Approximately 4.1 billion people, or 53.6 percent of the global population, now use the Internet. The output from their Internet activities account for 3.7 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions. Those emissions are predicted to double by 2025, which could be even greater when factoring the rise of digital services and the remote workforce since the onset of the pandemic.

Growth in devices and consumer behavior

Due to regulatory demands, the energy efficiency of data centers and networks are improving rapidly. Considering the rate of consumption, energy use and emissions are steadily shrinking due to the adjustments being made in the name of compliance.

Growing trends in technology are also making a collective difference. Internet-connected mobile devices, such as tablets and smartphones, are becoming smaller in size, and far more energy efficient in many ways. One of the most notable adjustments across most devices is the shift from CRT to LCD screens—the latter of which requires less usage of electricity.

The consumption of streaming media is also growing rapidly worldwide, and yet very rarely do we think about the consequences beyond our ever-shortening attention spans. Netflix subscriptions grew 20 percent last year to 167 million, while electricity consumption rose 84 percent. Video traffic over mobile networks is growing at 55 percent per year, and phones and tablets already account for more than 70 percent of the billion hours of YouTube streamed every day. Due to the rise in popularity of streaming content since the onset of the pandemic, many new video-streaming and cloud-gaming services launched throughout 2020, each with their own level of fanfare. Interestingly enough, cloud-game streaming has a much larger carbon footprint compared to games that have been downloaded, and physical games.

Some companies are beginning to take notice, and it’s time we all work toward a solution to this issue.

PlayStation, for example, chose to combat this for the PS4 through the usage of energy-efficient power supplies, rest modes, and system on a chip architecture. Its effort led to the company avoiding 17.5 million tons of carbon equivalent emissions, which is on track toward 30 million tons by 2030, which happens to be equivalent to the carbon emissions of the whole of Denmark in 2017.

Strides in energy efficiency

In the U.S., data centers are responsible for 2 percent of the country’s electricity use, while globally they account for just under 200 terawatt Hours (TWh). This figure has lessened in recent years despite rising Internet traffic and workloads, largely due to improved energy efficiency efforts. In an effort to join the energy efficiency bandwagon, many companies are making attempts to power their data centers using renewable energy. However, in some parts of the world, data centers are still largely powered from the burning of fossil fuels. Environmentally conscious consumers are typically unable to choose which data centers they want to use, as that information isn’t readily available to them. Major cloud providers, however, pledged to cut their carbon emissions in response to the public outcry and environmental regulations.

In the individual level—streaming video over fiber optic cables results in the lowest amount of CO2 emissions, at the rate of two grams per hour. On the flip side, streaming over next-generation mobile technology, better known as 5G, would result in carbon dioxide emissions of five grams per hour, while using copper cables produces twice that amount, and 3G mobile technology results in a hefty 90 grams of CO2 per hour.

This explains why the global fiber optic cable market was worth $37.95 billion in 2019, and is expected to reach $87.58 billion by 2023.

The impact of compressing videos

While they are aware of the economic and environmental costs, video service providers must cater to the demand for greater quality of streams, and video streaming companies work round-the-clock to avoid network crashes due to heavy traffic. The best option for these service providers is to make use of video-compression technologies.

Video compression reduces the strain on overburdened networks, and reduces carbon footprint. It also cuts the ballooning operational costs of data centers and streaming industries.

In order to reduce the carbon footprint, all industries need to step up to achieve the goals of the Paris Climate Agreement. When it comes to video streaming and gaming, optimized digital technologies can play a tremendous role in providing maximum benefits while minimizing environmental consequences.

About the author:

Sergio Grce holds an MSc in Investment Management and a First Class Hons BSc in Economics. During his 12-year investment banking career, Sergio worked for some of the largest investment banks, including Merrill Lynch, Nomura, Royal Bank of Scotland and Jeffries. In 2016, through Sergio’s strong interest in AI technologies, as well as its applications for video imaging, art and gaming, iSIZE was formed utilizing Sergio’s skills in putting strong teams together, managing both technical and commercial operations.

The views and opinions expressed herein are the views and opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Nasdaq, Inc.