Climate fact check: No, emissions from 30 minutes of Netflix don’t equal those from driving four miles

Lyon traffic jam

This file photo taken on January 24, 2017 shows the traffic jam on the second day of anti-pollution restrictive driving measures in Lyon.

Photo credit: Philippe Desmazes | AFP

A widely reported claim on the internet is that emissions from watching 30 minutes of Netflix are the same as those from driving almost four miles. The figures, which came from a report published by the Shift Project in 2019, aimed to show the unsustainable impact of streaming online videos.

The report added that streaming was responsible for more than 300 million tonnes of carbon dioxide in 2018, which translated to 3.2 kilogrammes of carbon dioxide per hour. In 2020, the organisation revised the figure from 1.6 kilogrammes per half an hour to 0.2 kilogammes.

But Netflix denied the claims, and using a tool called DIMPACT, they claimed that streaming on their platform used less than 100 grams of carbon dioxide. A study by Carbon Trust showed that streaming an hour-long television show is the environmental equivalent of popping four bags of popcorn in the microwave.

The study found that when you stream for an hour, it emits the equivalent of about 55 grams of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. About half of the emissions, it noted, come from the device, while the rest stem from home routers and distribution networks, data centres and hubs where the internet information is processed and stored.

Besides, United Nations Climate Change (UNFCCC) says that not everything we watch online generates the same amount of emissions, and that watching a Netflix episode is different from a computer searching through a lot of information in a data centre.

UNFCCC states that the manner of watching also counts, as television is more energy-intensive than a laptop or a smartphone.

“Research has also shown that the electricity demands of transmitting information across the internet have halved every two years since 2000. So, despite the fact that video traffic on mobile networks is growing by 55 per cent a year, and there are more than a billion hours of YouTube streamed every day, in theory, the demands this places on the electricity grid should go down,” says UNFCCC.

The International Energy Agency (IEA) also argues that the claim exaggerated the consumption of electricity by data centres and date transmission networks. Like UNFCCC, IEA agrees that the Shift Project may have underestimated the energy consumption of devices by around four-fold, by assuming that that viewing occurs only on smartphones.

“One hour of streaming video typically uses around 0.08kWh, but actual consumption depends on the device, network connection, and resolution,” the IEA says.

“For example, a 50-inch LED television consumes much more electricity than a smartphone (100 times) or laptop (5 times). Because phones are extremely energy efficient, data transmission accounts for more than 80 per cent of the electricity consumption when streaming.

“Viewing devices account for the majority of energy use (72 per cent), followed by data transmission (23 per cent) and data centres (five per cent).

“In contrast, the Shift Project values show that devices account for less than two per cent of total energy use, as a result of underestimating the energy use of devices (4x) while substantially overestimating the energy use of data centres (35x) and data transmission (50x).”

The IEA also notes that the carbon footprint of streaming a video depends on how electricity is used and generated, and that if a consumer is interested in reducing the impact of devices on the environment, they can opt to replace devices less often, and using smaller ones that consume less electricity. This would cut emissions and lessen the growing problem of electronic waste in the world.

This fact check was produced by the Daily Nation with support from Code for Africa’s PesaCheck, the International Fact Checking Network, and the African Fact Checking Alliance Network.