What Is the Carbon Footprint of Video Streaming?

Streaming a video is now a widespread activity for many of us. But, what are the carbon emissions associated with this activity? The Carbon Trust reported that the impacts are actually relatively minimal, especially compared to other activities.

In the Carbon Impact of Video Streaming, the authors explore the impact of one hour of video streaming. They found that powering a settop or mobile device was responsible for most of the carbon emissions. But the study didn’t explore the emissions from manufacturing the device or creating the streamed content. Two of the most significant variables are the location where the user streams the video and the electronic device they use.

Carbon Emissions From Electricity

The carbon emissions associated with a unit of energy varies by location depending on the efficiency of the power plants and the type of fuel used to generate electricity. Therefore, the power mix in your home varies depending on the power plants that provide energy. It also varies depending on the time of day, day of the week, and season. In addition, power plants are turned on and off depending on need and economic factors, so the energy mix varies depending on demand and other influences.

Coal, natural gas, and petroleum fuels contribute the lion’s share to carbon emissions from power plants and therefore have the most considerable impact on promoting climate change. Hydropower, solar, and wind energy are considered carbon-neutral, although there is still an environmental impact associated with these forms of power. However, there have been strides to improve these sources, such as developing recyclable wind turbine blades and manufacturing more efficient solar panels.

Some ways to reduce the carbon emissions associated with your power use are to promote energy efficiency around the home and use cleaner energy sources. If possible, install solar panels on your home. If this isn’t an option, many power companies have programs that allow customers to opt into renewable energy programs. Unfortunately, this often involves paying a slightly higher fee.

Another option is to join a community solar farm. Unfortunately, the laws vary across the United States, and only certain states have supportive policies. Colorado, Illinois, Maine, Massachusetts, Minnesota, New Jersey, New York, and Rhode Island are some of the leaders in community solar projects. To learn more about joining a community solar farm, search the EnergySage community solar database.

Energy-Efficient Video-Streaming Devices

The other big variable in the Carbon Trust study is the efficiency of the streaming device. For example, streaming a video on a 50-inch television consumes 4.5 times more energy than watching it on a laptop and 90 times more energy than watching it on a smartphone. Over time, devices are becoming more energy-efficient, which will help reduce carbon emissions associated with video streaming. So whenever possible, use the most energy-efficient device you can.

Other Communications Equipment

The Carbon Trust paper also explored aspects of video streaming in our homes and within the larger context. For example, streaming a video relies on equipment along the way to host videos and transmit the internet. Yet, despite all this other equipment, the user’s device still accounts for 54% of the total carbon footprint. Data centers come in a distant second place at 19%, according to the white paper.

Data centers are very energy-intensive operations and critical for internet traffic. The good news is that many IT giants are increasingly switching over to cleaner energy sources. So it is likely that data centers will continue to get cleaner in the future. As consumers, we can help encourage this by voicing a preference for clean energy and supporting companies that provide clear evidence of their sustainable practices.

We also rely on telecommunications equipment to tap into the internet, including everything our internet providers use before the internet enters our homes plus the routers and modems we use. As consumers, it’s hard to have much impact on the former, but we can use energy-efficient routers and even turn them off when not in use. To make this automatic, the JRS Eco router has a feature to turn off during scheduled intervals.

The Lowdown

Overall, Carbon Trust’s findings are that video streaming is a relatively low-carbon activity. However, it does provide some insights into how our individual actions can help reduce the overall emissions associated with streaming. The biggest opportunities are using more energy-efficient devices and cleaner energy sources.

Editor’s Note: Originally published July 31, 2024, this article was updated in May 2024.


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