A version of this article was first published on sustainabilitynook.com!
Over the past two decades, streaming services become one of the main ways people consume TV shows and movies, resulting in a lot of people switching from cable to streaming. And original content available only on these streamers has accelerated the switch.
This popularity has led to a ton of different streaming services popping up. From Netflix and Hulu to Disney+, Peacock, Amazon Prime Video, and more, the options these days seem to be endless.
However, with the growing popularity of streamers, many sustainably-minded people have started questioning the environmental impact these services have.
So, in this article, we’re looking at how sustainable it is to watch content on streaming services and zeroing in on binging your favorite TV show on Netflix and if it really is bad for the environment.
What is the carbon footprint of streaming your favorite TV show on Netflix?
Although there are no official statistics on how much energy is used by data centers, it’s thought that watching 30 minutes of a Netflix show generates about 1.6kg of carbon dioxide emissions that’s equivalent to driving four miles.
However, the International Energy Agency has questioned The Shift Project’s study, stating that it has overestimated the energy use of data transmission networks and that 30 minutes of a Netflix show could not generate the emissions equivalent to driving four miles.
Instead, the IEA says that streaming a Netflix video “typically consumed around 0.077kWh of electricity per hour”, but this amount also depends on what device, resolution, and type of network connection is used.
For example, a 50-inch LED television will naturally consume more electricity than a smartphone or laptop – approximately 100 times more than a smartphone and 5 times more than a laptop. And watching higher quality content, such as movies and shows in 4k or 8k resolution, consumes even data and electricity.
But the IEA estimates that a 30-minute show on Netflix releases around 0.018kg of carbon dioxide emissions, the equivalent of driving around 100 meters in a “conventional car”.
So, although binging Netflix does have an impact on the environment, it’s still hard to say clearly how big of an impact it is.
If you want more personalized data, The Shift Project has developed a Mozilla Firefox add-on that allows you to visualize your electricity consumption and greenhouse gas emissions.
Carbonalyser shows you which websites you went on, how much data you downloaded, and what your CO2 emissions are equivalent to.
Is binging Netflix bad for the environment?
When it comes down to it, binging Netflix isn’t any worse for the environment than watching one episode a week, though it might shave off a gram or two of carbon dioxide emissions simply because you’re not turning it on and off in between episodes.
It becomes problematic mostly if you leave Netflix running while you’re doing other things or if you fall asleep through a binge.
If you miss an episode that’s already played, you’ll have to rewind or start the episode again, which is a waste of electricity. So, make sure to pause when you need to.
And if you tend to fall asleep during movies or TV shows, try to find that sweet spot where you start to feel tired and turn off ahead of time.
Watching content on Netflix vs Amazon Prime Video: which is better for the planet?
Watching Netflix alone doesn’t harm the planet any more than it would already be generating emissions and consuming electricity, since one household doesn’t make much of a difference given their annual consumption levels.
But there might be something to it when choosing which streaming service to use.
Netflix claims to use 100% renewable energy and aims to achieve net-zero greenhouse gas emissions by the end of 2022, which makes it more sustainable than its competitor Amazon, which aims for net-zero carbon emissions by 2040.
Statistics aren’t available for Amazon Prime Video alone, but the company overall says that they are “on a path to powering our operations with 100% renewable energy by 2025”.
Amazon also promised to power “all of its data centers with renewable energy in the long-term” back in 2014. This was reported by WIRED, who then in 2019 rated Amazon’s cloud service C- for greenness.
Greenpeace also accused Amazon of breaking their commitment to powering their cloud service with renewable energy. No data is provided by Amazon to prove their commitment.
Based on this, if your choice is between Amazon Prime or Netflix then it’s safe to say that Netflix is more reliable and honest with their sustainability. On top of that, the environmental impact of Netflix is largely reduced by the company itself, so Netflix is the better choice when comparing video streaming services.
Is streaming TV shows better or worse for the environment than watching them live?
The National Resources Defense Council found that around 160 million set-top boxes in the US – which are owned and installed by cable, satellite, phone, or other service providers – used approximately 27 billion kilowatt-hours of electricity in 2010.
What’s more, they continue to operate at near full power “even when the consumer is neither watching nor recording a show”.
You would have to manually turn off your set-top box at all hours except for when you want to watch TV to curb the amount of electricity consumed by it. This isn’t practical for many households, especially with children.
Streaming TV shows does use less energy and emit fewer greenhouse gases than typical set-top boxes.
But nowadays there are many Internet-based systems with a low-energy set-top box, which are more eco-friendly than cable or satellite provider boxes.
So, you should either use your Internet-based set-top box if you want to watch TV live or stream content on a smartphone, tablet or laptop, given that television sets consume more electricity overall than these devices.
How to reduce your carbon footprint when binging shows on Netflix?
There are a few things you can do to limit the impact you have on the environment when streaming content on Netflix or any other streaming service.
Firstly, you can reduce the impact of using a streaming service like Netflix by using the smartphone and tablet app or watching on a laptop or PC instead of your TV, since, as I mentioned before, big TVs consume much more electricity than your computer, tablet or phone.
Other ways of reducing your environmental impact by streaming include:
- Turning off high-definition settings when watching on a small screen – you won’t really be able to tell the difference and it saves data;
- Streaming content over Wi-Fi instead of your mobile network;
- Disabling autoplay for previews;
- Turning off the TV show while you’re doing other things;
- Making sure you’re not falling asleep while watching content and don’t have to re-watch it.