Netflix streaming has become a part of life, but is it more than a guilty pleasure?

Using data can often feel like an abstract concept. While I may stress all day about forgetting to turn off the light in my flat, watching Netflix is not something I have ever really felt guilty about from an environmental point of view. Indeed, streaming episodes of Stranger Things from the comfort of my bed seems to be a relatively benign activity as far as my carbon footprint impact is concerned.

But though it is true that streaming a TV programme is definitely better than driving out to pick up the DVD, we shouldn’t congratulate ourselves just yet. Using data eats up a lot of energy. Like, aeroplane level bad. The information and communications technology sector as a whole is thought to be responsible for the same amount of global greenhouse gas emissions as the much maligned airline industry, at around three per cent. And this failure to connect our use of data with what happens in the real world to deliver it to us could be a costly mistake.

Video streaming is currently the main data-usage offender, accounting for over 60 per cent of all internet traffic, according to estimates from network analytics firm Sandvine. Over the next decade though, streaming could be knocked from its unwanted top spot by the growing Internet of Things and Smart Home devices, with AI companions like Amazon’s Alexa gobbling up an inordinate amount of fuel to tell us jokes and answer vital questions about the weather. We need to start recognising the invisible cost of data and doing something about it.

So how does it all work? The vast majority of the environmental impact is borne by the ‘brains’ of our computers, rather than the gadgets themselves. These are distributed all around the world as servers, making up the physical backbone of what people refer to as the ‘cloud’. Far from being an insubstantial mass of air, the cloud exists in the form of bulky data centres often bigger than a football field, guzzling energy like nobody’s business.

A large part of the energy used to power these data centres comes from cooling the machines. Just like your laptop gets very warm in the middle of a binging marathon, servers also overheat during heavy usage. And cooling down so much equipment requires plenty of power. Calculations published in the International Journal of Green Technology suggest data centres could more than double their power demands over the next decade, and by 2030 will be eating up a massive 11 per cent of global energy.

That’s a pretty terrifying concept. But what can we do about it as individuals? Just becoming more aware of our streaming habits and attempting to trim them down can make a difference (as well as helping us avoid the negative array of side-effects that come with Netflix binges). If it’s an option, we can also switch some of our viewing back to terrestrial TV (I know, I know, what century am I from?) which at the moment is a lot more efficient than current streaming technologies for popular TV channels. Another change could be to use a mobile phone to consume our streaming rather than a TV or laptop, and to use Wi-Fi rather than 3G or 4G, as again this requires a lot less energy.

Companies are making positive changes too. Apple and Google both claim to run on 100 per cent renewable energy and other companies like Microsoft are working hard to catch up. It’s important now for us to hold the smaller more anonymous companies accountable in order to push up the percentage of data produced sustainably.

So next time you hop into bed with Netflix, don’t just mindlessly consume. Think about how far those billions of bits of data travel to deliver that new episode to your laptop. Pretty crazy when you think about it.

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