The technology powering today’s video streaming services is more often than not, found in the cloud, but its impact can still be found down here on planet Earth as a contributor to the global issue of climate change. When we think of climate change, we immediately think of burning fossil fuels and deforestation, but the reality is that digital technologies are also causing man-made changes to ecosystems worldwide.
The rapid growth of the internet in the late 90s caused a boom in the transmission and storage of online content and video conferencing, digital services which revolutionised workplaces, educational institutions and entertainment services. Yet, the sheer power that digital technologies consume worldwide due to datacentres means that its carbon footprint exceeds that in industries such as pre-pandemic aviation, shipping and agriculture. Internet traffic is responsible for more than half of digital technology’s global impact, which is 55% of energy consumption annually. Video processing and streaming generate 306 million tons of CO2, 20% of digital technology’s total greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions and nearly 1% of worldwide GHG emissions.
Furthermore, there’s a knowledge gap among consumers between their perceived impact of video streaming on the planet and reality. We recently conducted consumer research which found that 1 in 4 (28%) of consumers believe there is no impact on the climate from streaming video online, and 78% of viewers openly admitted that they had to guess its environmental impact. The video streaming industry needs benchmarking data to provide consumers with more accurate and transparent data about how sustainable video streaming services are so they have a clearer understanding of their streaming carbon footprint and the services they choose. Being more transparent about the carbon footprint of video streaming technologies and services is in the industry’s best interests because it holds us accountable to take action to become more sustainable and also evolve in line with the preferences of consumers. As our research also found that 64% of consumers said they would prioritise a sustainable streaming platform over non-sustainable alternatives.
Of course, providing benchmarking data is not easy. Downstream emissions are difficult to track for streaming services due to the service being available on thousands of different devices across numerous countries with various electricity providers, each with varying levels of sustainability. However, it is something we have been trying to accomplish in partnership with the University of Klagenfurt with Project GAIA, which is a two-year collaboration. One of the project’s main objectives is to reduce video streaming’s carbon footprint and promote green practices within the industry to help save the planet. We aim to achieve this by developing more climate-friendly video streaming platforms by providing complete energy awareness and accountability throughout the entire video delivery chain. The initial benchmarking and analysis will inform and enable better prioritisation, maximising the impact of efforts toward reducing energy consumption and GHG emissions.
A couple of areas Project GAIA focused on include Video Encoding and Playback, with the ultimate goal of turning its research findings into practical applications. On the encoding side, one of the key outcomes was VE-Match, a matching-based method, which aims to address the growing number of cloud and edge data centres and their power consumption to schedule video encoding applications on both Cloud and Edge resources and optimise costs and energy consumption. When tested, VE-Match achieves lower costs by 17 %-78 % in the cost-optimised scenarios compared to the energy-optimised, and the tradeoff between cost and energy. Additionally, VE-Match improves the video encoding energy consumption by 38 %-45 % and gCO2 emission by up to 80 %.
With Playback, Project Gaia found an effective way to to inform video viewers of the climate impact of their video streaming. After UX research, the approach was to prototype an ‘Eco’ button which is shown in the video player interface. The purpose of this is to prompt the user to explore the Eco mode and understand that by enabling it, they would be actively lowering and saving energy and therefore CO2 emissions. When the ‘Eco’ button is disabled, the player would be trying to optimise for highest video quality. The decision to use the ‘Eco’ approach was to encourage users to be mindful about saving energy and engage in a positive manner. When users select the Eco mode, the player UI will show the energy used to stream their video, thereby increasing user awareness of the benefits of climate-friendly video streaming. We also respect that streaming services may be nervous about any loss of video quality when using the Eco mode and so providing this as an opt-in rather than default mode will increase the likelihood of real-world adoption.
Overall, even though video streaming technologies are continuing to move to the cloud, the industry cannot be complacent about their impact on the climate. However, if we want to create a green new world, companies cannot work in insolation to create sustainable products; the first step is to have industry-wide benchmarking data that provides full transparency about the carbon footprint of every step in the video delivery chain. This will then propel the industry forward to make meaningful change in the fight against climate change.