How your Netflix binge is killing the planet: Internet streaming services are powered by fossil fuel-burning plants that pollute the environment, documentary reveals – and HD uses up to FIVE times as much energy
- Experts are warning about the impact the internet is having on the environment
- Internet is using so much energy that experts are suggesting drastic measures
- There are hundreds of data centres across world running on fossil fuel electricity
- Professor Ian Bitterlin says rollout of 5G will launch vast avalanche of data use
- BBC Three’s Dirty Streaming: The Internet’s Big Secret is available on iPlayer
Our Netflix binging habits and constant Instagram scrolling is as polluting to the environment as flying, a new BBC Three documentary has revealed.
Experts are warning about the impact a huge rise in data use could have on the planet, following the launch of streaming services from the likes of Disney and Apple, the growth in cryptocurrencies, and the rollout of 5G.
By time two-year-old Stormi Kardashian West is a teenager, the internet may be using fifth of the world’s electricity – the same as the whole of America.
Dirty Streaming: The Internet’s Big Secret explains how three quarters of the world’s internet use is video – and the data centres where they are stored are largely powered by fossil fuels.
It revealed how binge watching an entire series like Peaky Blinders generates the same emissions as driving from Birmingham to Manchester.
Our Netflix binging habits and constant Instagram scrolling is as polluting to the environment as flying, a new BBC Three documentary has revealed. Pictured is presenter Beth Webb, who hosts the programme
As our demand for video grows, so does the demand on the data centres – which are essentially the physical locations of ‘the cloud’ – which house them.
In turn, the data centres use up more power – both to store its millions of files and keep its powerful servers cool.
To watch a video on your device, your request travels from your phone, through different networks, under the ocean along fibre optic cables to a data centre somewhere in the world where it is stored.
It then travels back to you in thousands of pieces, reassembling as a video when it gets to your phone. The higher the resolution, the greater the transmission of data.
Professor Ian Bitterlin, a consulting engineer and visiting professor at Leeds University, said the rollout of 5G is set to launch ‘another vast avalanche of data use’.
Speaking in the documentary, he explained: ‘5G will generate much more traffic and demand much more power, which is not good for climate change.’
Meanwhile Dr Mike Hazas, a professor at Lancaster University’s School of Computing and Communications, added that watching shows in high definition uses up to fives times the amount of energy.
‘If you go to high definition, the number of pixels and the amount of information that comes across is four to five times as much, and so you can equate that roughly to being four to five times the amount of energy,’ he said.
‘The network’s having to do more and then the data centre far away is also having to do a bit more.’
Dr Bitterlin added: ‘If you’re doing a heart operation somewhere, with remote video, then absolutely yes [you need HD].
‘Watching a video on a phone, with most people’s average eyesight? Absolutely not.’
Meanwhile Dr Mike Hazas, a professor at Lancaster University’s School of Computing and Communications, added that watching shows in high definition uses up to fives times the amount of energy
Dr Hazas pointed out that streaming a video or doing anything else on the internet also uses three to four times more energy if you’re on 3G or 4G compared to if you’re on WiFi.
‘If you have the choice, watching that video at home as opposed to during your daily commute is a better way,’ he advised.
‘In terms of energy consumption, things like autoplay and infinite scrolling, because they keep us engaged, that keeps the data flowing which keeps the energy flowing.
‘I’ve got a three-year-old and when he’s a teenager, I would hope that we’d also think about, “Oh is this a video that I really wanted to stream, am I really going to be here in the next five minutes to actually watch it, or is this the kind of thing I should switch off?”‘
The largest data centre hub in the world is in Loudoun County in Virginia, US – where AOL was based – which sees upwards of 70 per cent of the internet run through it every day.
Dr Hazas pointed out that streaming a video or doing anything else on the internet also uses three to four times more energy if you’re on 3G or 4G compared to if you’re on WiFi
The area has 13.5million square feet of data centre space and is the centre of Amazon’s cloud business. Since 2008, data centre construction there has been ongoing.
Amazon owns a huge chunk of the internet and earns more profit from selling its cloud than it does from its Alexa products and one day deliveries.
Companies like Netflix, the BBC, Spotify and Uber all rent data centre space from Amazon.
Alex Rough, a network engineer who used to work for Amazon, told reporter Beth Webb: ‘The problem with data centres is not their prevalence, not exactly their size; it’s mostly about the fossil fuels that power them.’
As our demand for video grows, so does the demand on the data centres – which are essentially the physical locations of ‘the cloud’ – which house them. In turn, the data centres use up more power, generated from fossil fuels. Pictured: one of Dominion’s coal power stations which is billowing steam into the atmosphere
Most of the fossil fuels that power the Virginia data centres comes from Dominion, an energy company which historically hasn’t been very green.
During the show Beth visits one of Dominion’s coal power stations which is billowing steam into the atmosphere.
Alex claimed: ‘I think it just comes down to pure profit, and what is more profitable to them in the short run game, and that’s essentially what it is, them playing a game with climate change and racing against the course of time.’
At the end of the documentary, it’s pointed out that the viewer has used enough energy to travel 225m in a car just by watching the programme.
A spokesperson for Amazon told the BBC: ‘Amazon will continue to work towards our goals of achieving 80 per cent renewable energy by 2024 and 100 per cent by 2030.’
A spokesperson for Dominion said: ‘Dominion Energy is committed to net-zero carbon and methane emissions by 2050.’
Dirty Streaming: The Internet’s Big Secret is available on BBC Three on iPlayer from March 5.
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