London, United Kingdom – In July 2017, Despacito, a popular reggaeton hit from Fonsi and Daddy Yankee, became the most widely streamed record of all time, with a version featuring Canadian superstar Justin Bieber helping the tune to more than 4.6 billion plays since it was released in the January of that year.
A decade ago, reggaeton would have been an unlikely choice of genre for the most popular song on the planet – played in clubs, on radio stations and in dance classes everywhere – with the broadening appeal of previously niche tastes just one aspect in which the music industry has fundamentally changed with the spread of streaming technologies.
But the growth of streaming has had another, often overlooked, impact – it is directly contributing to environmental degradation, even as the environmental byproducts of producing physical products such as clunky CD players or racks full of vinyls has decreased.
A group of researchers from the European Commission, led by Dr Rabih Bashroush, found that those 4.6 billion streams of Despacito had used as much electricity as the combined annual electricity consumption of Chad, Guinea-Bissau, Somalia, Sierra Leone and the Central African Republic.
The greenhouse gas emissions of video-on-demand services such as Netflix and Amazon Prime are equivalent to the emissions of a country such as Chile, according to the Shift Project, a French think-tank which has published several reports advocating for digital sobriety. This body of research is starting to swell, as consumers and companies alike start to reckon with their environmental impact in other areas.
“People can’t assume that just because something doesn’t have a physical format, that it’s got no carbon attached to it,” says Sharon George, a lecturer in environmental science at Keele University. “There’s still electronic use, servers involved, and the digital world does still have a carbon footprint.”
These emissions are seen on several fronts. On a very basic level, the emissions arise from the power necessary for keeping devices on (or charging them), as well as the energy necessary to store and share information. Data centres – which host servers that process and redistribute internet traffic – also require a huge amount of energy expenditure, and global data flows go through data centres around the world.
They’re estimated to account for about 0.3 percent of all global carbon dioxide emissions.
“Even back in 2012, I knew from reading some good journalism that digital files are material things, and the internet was not weightless,” says Kyle Devine, a professor at the University of Oslo and the author of Decomposed, a book about the material implications of streaming music. “But I didn’t find much in the literature which addressed music.”
Slowly, he started to look at what went into making it possible to download and stream music, using resources such as Greenpeace’s Click Clean Scorecard, which examines the energy practices of streaming companies.
Streaming technologies – such as Netflix and Spotify – have been around for a relatively short period of time, and the idea that they may have an environmental impact is new, at least to people not working in the field.
But research from the Shift Project and a special report from the EU Commission indicate roughly the same findings – that streaming technologies have a more significant carbon footprint than we previously thought, and that it is unlikely to decrease soon. Digital technologies, according to the Shift Project, are responsible for 4 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions, a proportion which could double by 2025.
Online video streaming – YouTube, Hulu and the like – accounts for 60 percent of that figure, currently emitting 306 million tonnes of carbon dioxide a year.
We need to be using renewables to power the technology revolution
The relationship between listening to a few songs on Spotify and emitting greenhouse gases might seem a little tenuous but researchers from these very companies have also identified compelling links.
“Although streaming an individual album uses much less energy than listening to an album on CD, or an LP, we stream such vast amounts of music that the gains in energy efficiency are outstripped by an overall increase in the amount we listen to,” says Devine.
In his book, Devine used research from 2015/2016 compiled by Greenpeace to understand what kinds of energy were used to power the streaming technologies behind giant companies such as Spotify. In the past few years, as these platforms have grown in scale, those emissions have increased in size and frequency.
Streaming is often thought of as an immaterial act – but Devine asserts that such an idea is false: “Techno-fixes are usually not the answer – if we need more transparency and better practice from the industries, we may also need to closely examine the culture of listening that has built up around online music over the last two decades. We may need to question a culture of listening that expects instant access, infinite storage and constant use.”
George, from Keele, agrees.
“We use IT in so many different ways,” she says. “IT can provide a platform to decarbonise other areas of society too, such as in transport, where technology can replace flights or travel to conferences, but there’s a role for those companies to be carbon neutral or even carbon negative.”
There are also worries around hardware – touch screens, cables, and so on – that may not be sustainably produced or disposed of, contributing further to the carbon footprint of certain technologies. Other dimensions – such as the kind of file that’s being downloaded, the resolution, the electricity needed to charge your devices – is difficult to factor in, so the real picture may even be more destructive than we already know.
“Like food labels, there are a lot of people who are prepared to change their behaviour if you help them,” says Bashroush, who led the European Commission project. “But there are so many moving pieces and factors, so people don’t necessarily understand their consumption and their carbon footprint.”
Bashroush suggests a couple of quick fixes – such as downloading a song to your local device instead of streaming music from a distant server – but also asserts that might not be enough. “The question is why doesn’t the industry regulate itself,” says Bashroush. “There’s no incentive for anyone to do so.”
Streaming companies make money from advertisements. Reed Hastings, the CEO of Netflix, said in 2017 that Netflix’s main competition was sleep – companies that make money from streaming are unlikely to self-regulate to encourage people to think about their footprints.
Fans of online TV and music are not necessarily aware that their consumption habits have such a direct relationship to greenhouse gas emissions, or even that they create a carbon footprint at all. The infrastructure of the internet – particularly technologies now seen as commonplace, such as online video – can be difficult to understand in real terms.
“We need to be using renewables to power the technology revolution,” adds George. “You wouldn’t buy a lightbulb without knowing how many watts it was using, so companies need to be raising awareness and they need to be more transparent.”
EU legislation has specified that servers in data centres must fit certain parameters but, other than a few cursory attempts, there is little regulation globally around the carbon footprint of streaming technologies.
While there are some tweaks or fixes that can be made to minimise one’s personal online environmental impact, it may all be for nothing without significant effort on the part of the companies and corporations responsible.
Devine posits that individual awareness can build into a collective conscience, which can lead to requirements for industry transparency and government regulation. But legislation on the matter may be difficult to enforce – how can any one government ensure certain uses of personal technology, without comprising severely on other values? Would the impact be evenly spread, or would some people struggle far more as a result?
“I don’t know that monitoring our individual streaming accounts will be of much help,” says Devine. “In fact, I think that framing these issues in terms of personal responsibility is actually a part of the problem. If we feel that we are doing our part to address environmental issues, it’s possible that bigger companies can continue growing bigger, consuming resources, exploiting people and expelling pollution.”