How many trees do we need to plant to offset Netflix streaming?

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In 2020, streaming giant Netflix released their second Environmental Social Governance (ESG) report using SASB guidelines. Like most progressive and forward-looking organisations, they deserve credit for their approach to sustainability – perhaps best seen through their statement that if we are to succeed in entertaining the world, we need a habitable, stable world to entertain. 

“As a passionate advocate of sustainability awareness, not to mention how technology and data centres could and should be improving their energy performance, it will come as no surprise that I was particularly interested in what Netflix had to say,” Dave McGuirk, co-founder, and CEO of Gaia Edge, says. “You might go so far as to call it my bedtime reading.”

Let us turn the clock back to 2019 and early 2020, sensationalist headlines were common. One such headline proclaimed that Netflix streaming needs 85 million trees grown for ten years, which I use to illustrate just how Netflix was unfairly targeted by several media outlets. Major organisations including The Guardian picked up the research and reported data provided by the French Think Tank – The Shift Project, whom I hasten to add had never specifically mentioned Netflix.

Back in 2019, the report sparked a host of controversy around ‘Cat Videos causing a climate change nightmare’ as well as mainstream media over-reporting on the emissions created by one hour of Netflix streaming. Some outlets claimed that half an hour of streaming was the equivalent of driving four miles or powering an LED lightbulb for around a week. These figures, whilst making great headlines, have largely been discredited with experts from the Carbon Brief, in conjunction with research and analysis from the IEA, suggesting their calculations were out by a very significant factor.

Fast forward to 2020 and the debate rumbles on but hats off to Netflix for their recent efforts in ESG reporting, especially in helping solve this mystery. “Whilst end-user consumption falls into scope 3 and as such is not reported upon,” McGuirk adds. “Netflix alongside other streaming companies have tried to calculate the operational emissions of streaming at consumer level using DIMPACT, a collaborative research initiative that has created a lifecycle footprinting tool led by the University of Bristol computer science department. Netflix has entered and validated their own data and estimated one hour of streaming in 2020 to be well under 100g CO2e which is the equivalent of driving a car approximately a quarter of a mile.

According to Netflix, these results are consistent with industry peers and validated by its Advisory Group of Experts, with Carbon Trust publishing a white paper on the topic this spring. The Carbon Trust report estimates around 55g CO2e or approximately 0.077KW/h. These figures include end-user devices power requirements, all internet hops and the infrastructure required to deliver the streaming video.

Armed with this information McGuirk undertook his own calculations. Based on Netflix’s 204 million subscribers around the world who each watch around eight hours 52 minutes per week according to Statista, McGuirk calculated the annual energy use as 7236989.76 MWh or 5,128,728 MTCO2e

“5.12 million metric tons of CO2e could power 617 618 homes for a year, drive 12.8 million miles or charge 623,872,046,893 smartphones,” McGuirk explains. “So suddenly Netflix’s reporting (or any other digital provider for that matter) gets a different perspective. One that should signal to us all that carbon consumption, energy use and sustainability is a collective responsibility, it cannot rest with organisations like Netflix alone. Although their size and scale demand better from them we, as individuals, consumers, business leaders and global citizens need to act together. But the fact is that to sequester our annual Netflix consumption of over 5.12 million trees need to be planted and ironically our made-up headline is not as far of the mark as you might expect.”

Based on our collective use of Netflix alone we would need to plant 5.12 million trees and grow them for not ten but for 100 years.  Green Energy Consulting report that ‘one broad leaf tree will absorb in the region of one tonne of carbon dioxide during its full lifetime (approximately 100 years).

“So annually we would need to plant 5.12 million trees and let them grow for 100 years to absorb and counterbalance the amount of energy we use and carbon we create just from using the streaming service,” McGuirk continues. “Now before I go any further, I should say I am in no way anti-Netflix, I love a bit of Breaking Bad as much as the next person but in the interest of transparency, I am disappointed to see the limitations in the accountability and reporting displayed lack of direct comparables, and more than a little frustrated to see yet more greenwashing in the form of footnotes to REC programmes that mask the consumption issues we are all facing.

“In our recent report Race to Zero – The path to sustainability in the data centre of tomorrow we highlighted just how 96 per cent of G250 companies are reporting on sustainability and most, if not all disclose their carbon offsets and use Renewable Energy Credit Schemes (RECS).

“I fully acknowledge that ESG reporting is an emerging discipline and Netflix have no responsibility to publicly account for the energy use of their subscribers in consuming their content. They are clear and transparent that within their scope 3 reporting they do not include user devices or internet transmission – nonetheless, I believe it is a measure that as users we should be able to see, address and ultimately reduce.

“If this makes for uncomfortable reading then I would consider that a minor win. We must act today to create a new normal as far as sustainability is concerned. It is not enough to have shifted from Sunday drives to Netflix and chill, as a way of reducing our own carbon footprint or to simply shift from petrol and diesel to EV’s. We have to think and act more creatively, more innovatively to maintain our way of life in the face of what is undoubtedly our biggest collective challenge to date.”

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