Streaming at the heart of the conclusions of a Swiss study on the digital carbon footprint

Streaming at the heart of the conclusions of a Swiss study on the digital carbon footprint


Vast debate that revolves around the carbon footprint of digital, very complex to measure. Swiss researchers have tried it and deliver their conclusions, partly focused on the impact of streaming.

The share of global greenhouse gas emissions attributable to digital is constantly debated. According to a recent survey by the University of Zurich and the Gottlieb Duttweiler Institute (GDI), carried out at the request of Swico and the SwissCleanTech association, digital technology is responsible for 3% of CO2 emissions. This figure is more favorable than that put forward by an organization such as The Shift Project, which in 2018 assessed digital as being responsible for 3.7% of global emissions, while its share was 2.5% in 2013. Its increase is by elsewhere relatively fast, around 9% per year. It is nevertheless a little higher than that estimated by Ademe and Arcep for France (2.5%).

The methodology is quite interesting insofar as the researchers tried a global approach, integrating equipment manufacturing, deployment of services and use, without evading the efficiency gains made possible by digitization or the rebound effects (when, for example, the transition of a digital service facilitates its access and increases demand). Is particularly cited the explosion of videoconferencing, a tool democratized in business since the pandemic, knowing that virtual meetings generally have more participants than they welcome face-to-face. On the consumption side, quick and convenient access to ever-expanding catalogs of products, delivered within very short deadlines, can again lead to an increase in the consumption of goods.

Streaming at the heart of consumption

Unsurprisingly, this new study indicates that, in terms of uses, streaming is the service with the greatest impact on global warming. This practice, which consumes a lot of bandwidth, generates high energy consumption, requires massive infrastructure, and therefore has a very large carbon footprint. Researchers at the University of Zurich have for example calculated that 4.6 billion plays of the tube Despacito (we are now at more than 8 billion!) represent the combined annual electricity consumption of Guinea-Bissau, the Central African Republic, Somalia, Sierra Leone and Chad. For streaming, both audio and video, the rebound effect obviously plays a major role.

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Already in 2021, a study by the University of Bristol pointed to Netflix’s high power consumption and its CO2 equivalent emissions: its 10 most popular series had generated 6 billion hours of viewing in the 28 days following their release, roughly representing a car journey of 1.8 billion kilometres. More generally, video streaming consumes around 80% of global internet bandwidth.

Forbid autoplay

Interviewed by RTS (Radio Télévision Suisse)Bela Loto, founder of the association Point de MIR, explains that it is very important to realize the impact of streaming. “There are many things that make our lives easier, but whose impacts or consequences we don’t measure. […] And if we have to sell streaming services, we are not going to tell people that it pollutes a lot”she says before specifying: “Streaming is immaterial, that’s what we hear very often, but it’s falsely dematerialized: it takes servers, networks and terminals (smartphone, computer, TV, etc.). This is what will consume the most and have the strongest environmental impact due to their manufacture.”

In its conclusions, the study in question delivers some good practices to limit the ecological impact of streaming, such as favoring audio content or reducing image quality and resolution as much as possible when watching a video. In other words, there is no need to stream a “4K” stream on YouTube when you have a 1080p screen (or to watch your video on your smartphone screen). At the industrial level, the researchers recommend the establishment of less energy-intensive distribution infrastructures powered by renewable energies, as well as the taking of concrete global measures such as the prohibition of self-reading. We will add to this the extension of the useful life of terminals, the manufacture of which generally accounts for at least half of the carbon footprint.

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