Greening Our Digital Footprint: How to Stream Responsibly

The last instalment of the Greening Our Digital Footprint series concludes today with a look at a growing practice that is poised to have an enormous impact on the sustainability of our online lives in the years to come: video streaming.

While it is still hard to estimate the exact footprint of our combined online habits, preliminary research suggests that streaming will, in the years to come, come to occupy a growing percentage of our total carbon emissions worldwide. In fact, by 2022 the prediction is that 82% of online traffic will come from video alone. Globally, this translates to 3 trillion minutes (equivalent to 5 million years) of video content played each month. In other words, 1.1 million minutes of video streamed or downloaded every second.

The numbers are staggering, and to break them down further it might be helpful to think about one of the major players in the online video space, YouTube. At the moment, 1 billion hours of YouTube are watched every day. As Earth Definition writes, “the carbon emissions of YouTube alone equate to 10 million metric tons of CO2e per year – roughly the same as Luxembourg or Zimbabwe’s annual output.” What’s more, there’s a difference between streaming in standard definition versus high or even ultra high definition. Scientists at the UK's Royal Society say streaming one hour of Ultra HD on a phone generates about eight times more in emissions than standard definition (SD).

Netflix, another giant in the space, recently released its inaugural environmental, social and governance report, in which it reveals more information about its carbon footprint. Using a tool called DIMPACT, which was developed by researchers at the University of Bristol, according to this Wired article, “Netflix claims that one hour of streaming on its platform in 2020 used less than 100gCO2e (a hundred grams of carbon dioxide equivalent)”. While this amounts to less than driving an average car a quarter of a mile individually, collectively it still adds up to a lot and, as The New York Times points out, Netflix has yet not announced targets for reducing its operational carbon footprint.

In this video, BAFTA-nominated animation director & climate activist, Simon Robson, and Professor of Sustainability, Mike Berners-Lee, discuss the invisible impact of our digital lives and unpack the concept of a digital carbon footprint further:


Shrinking Our Streaming Footprint

Streaming isn’t going anywhere any time soon. It’s a staple of our entertainment, and video has quickly become an inseparable component of our work life. If your nonprofit is curious about ways to engage with video streaming in a more eco-conscious, we have rounded up suggestions by some of the world’s leading digital sustainability experts:


CHOOSE A DIFFERENT DEFINITION: Streaming high definition videos on your phone generates approximately four times more emissions into the atmosphere than necessary. The folks behind the Earth Definition initiative encourage users to switch to standard definition––the difference in image quality will be minimal, especially if streaming video from your phone:

REACH OUT TO COMPANIES: The hidden carbon costs of our digital lives are still little-known and under-discussed by the average consumer, meaning that there has also been little incentive for tech companies to green their operations voluntarily. Reaching out to companies is an important way to accelerate two important changes: making green options the default by design, and advancing sustainability policies at the corporate and governmental levels. Greenpeace’s Click Clean campaign has lots of valuable information about both, if you’re curious.

TRY THESE TECH HACKS: There are also a number of strategies you can turn to to shrink your streaming footprint from day to day. For example, for users who only need YouTube content for the audio, the option to turn off video could save 100 to 500 Kilotons of CO2e each year — comparable to the carbon footprint of 30,000 homes in the U.K. Browsers like Firefox have features that block videos with sound from autoplaying by default, in the process saving more energy. You can also download content ahead of time, which puts less demand on networks that may be connecting to servers from disparate locations.

HOST A GREEN TEAM MEETING: If you are hosting many videos through digital teleconference platforms, there are a number of things you can do to make them more sustainable. The first, is to keep cameras off by default, or introduce policies that give team members the option of choosing whether the camera is on or off. (You could also design meetings so that only those who are speaking turn their cameras on, switching them off when it’s somebody else’s turn, or encourage people to join in by phone.) If you’re curious, this article by MIT News shares the latest research findings about the impact of virtual meetings.

CONSUME CONSCIOUSLY: Another big step is being conscious of what is consumed daily and where. One example, of course, would be to reduce the amount of time spent streaming videos and music each day––choosing other activities such as spending time outdoors or connecting in person. For organizations, establishing a clear content audit process is also a way to ensure that redundant data isn’t being stored on the cloud, taking up server space and requiring significant resources in terms of water, energy and land. Read MightyBytes’s fascinating article on Environmental Digital Responsibility––especially the Responsible Power Consumption section––for lots of hands-on tips that your organization can adopt.


Read More

  • How to Reduce Your Digital Carbon Footprint (Reset)
  • Digital Declutter: a toolkit for businesses (Whole Grain Digital)
  • Design Sustainably: a collection of tips, tools and resources for eco-concsious digital designers
  • Turning Cameras Off During Zoom Meetings Can Help the Climate, Study Finds (CTV)
  • What is Corporate Digital Responsibility (MightyBytes)


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