Tis The Season To Be Worried: Our Online Habits

By Sophie Lam 23 December, 2021

CWR's intern Lam shines a light on how our online habits are exacerbating the climate crisis

The carbon footprint of our digital technologies accounts for 3.7% of global GHG emissions – that’s more than the aviation industry, and it’s set to double by 2025
Annual global social media usage's emissions = launching 2,389 rockets/day for a yr while 6bn hrs of Netflix’s global hits = GHGs emitted by driving from Earth to Saturn
Change your online habits before it’s too late; start by decreasing your daily social media activity by one hour, streaming on medium quality & switching to WiFi!

With Christmas and New Year’s right around the corner and the pandemic’s travel restrictions still in place, who’s going to stop you from spending your holidays on social media and streaming TV shows hours on end?

Your online habits are exacerbating our climate crisis…

Sorry folks, we’ve got not so jolly news that might put a damper on your plans. What if we told you that your online habits are exacerbating our climate crisis? Whilst COP26 is still etched on everyone’s minds and the challenges ahead made even more evident, we must do our part as individuals and begin cultivating a sustainable digital lifestyle.

Below we look at what our digital lifestyles means for climate change – specifically by being on social media & streaming on Netflix – and what you can do about it to reduce the impacts.

It’s not just time… social media is sucking up our energy & water too

When we think about our carbon footprint, we tend to link it to our daily commute or electricity use, when in fact our social media habits are a big polluter.

2035 digital emissions = 310mt = 3x Guangzhou’s carbon emissions, a city of 15mn people

Scrolling through your social media feed may seem harmless, however, data centres require tremendous amounts of energy to operate. In China’s 5G data centres alone, electricity consumption is set to increase by 289% between 2020 – 2025. And by 2035, digital emissions are expected to reach 310 million tonnes of CO2e – 3x the amount of Guangzhou’s total carbon emissions in 2019 – that’s a city of 15.31 million people.

According to Greenspector, if we average the CO2 impact of the top 10 social media applications, for every 60 seconds spent, 1.15g CO2e of emissions is pumped into the atmosphere. This may initially sound insignificant but given that on average we spend around 2 hours and 24 minutes per day scrolling through social media … that means each person emits 165.6g CO2e per day and 60,444g CO2e per year.

Application

Carbon impact of newsfeed scrolling
(g CO2e/min)

Water Resource (Litres/min)

Energy Consumption of newsfeed
(mAh/min)

YouTube 0.46 0.08 08.58
Twitch 0.55 0.09 09.05
Twitter 0.60 0.10 10.28
LinkedIn 0.71 0.10 08.92
Facebook 0.79 0.12 12.36
Snapchat 0.87 0.12 11.48
Instagram 1.05 0.12 08.90
Pinterest 1.30 0.15 10.83
Reddit 2.48 0.23 11.04
TikTok 2.63 0.27 15.81

Source: What is the environmental footprint for social media applications? 2021 Edition. Greenspector (2021).

Today there are 4.33 billion active social media users, imagine the emissions we collectively produce every year? We’ve calculated it to be a shocking 262 million tonnes of CO2e emissions – equivalent to launching 2,389 rockets into space per day.

In our 2018 article, we calculated a viral song “Despacito”, which was played more than 5 billion times on YouTube at that time, produced more than the annual emissions of 100,000 taxis and used 400 Olympic-sized swimming pools worth of water. This was just one song, on one platform.

Tech companies will account for 7.4% of global GHG emissions by 2025

With TikTok on the rise, large tech firms are upgrading their functions to accommodate our obsession with watching and creating highly carbon-intensive video reels (short-form videos set to music), which will make these tech companies account for 7.4% of global greenhouse gas (GHG) 2025.

Whilst these numbers are significant there are things you can do to help – find out at the end of this article.

Netflix, another big carbon emitter and water user

For the first time ever, Netflix has disclosed details about its carbon footprint – and it’s substantial. According to the Carbon Trust, streaming Netflix in Europe for one hour produces 55g of CO2e which is equivalent to the emissions of driving 300 meters in a car. Streaming videos is extremely energy-intensive due to the vast amounts of electricity required to power huge data centres, home web routers and distribution networks to provide us with highspeed streaming services on our devices.

Data centre uses 3 – 5 mn gallons of water /day for its servers – equiv. to water consumption of a 30-50k people city

This year, Netflix has also disclosed to the public that its users have spent more than 6 billion hours streaming the most popular global hits, such as Squid Game, Stranger Things, Money Heist and Bridgerton, in the first 28 days after each show was released. We’ve calculated that this equates to 330,000 tonnes of CO2e emissions produced, the Carbon Trust estimate – the distance you can drive from Earth to Saturn (1.8 billion km)! It is also expected that video streaming will account for 82% of internet traffic by 2022.

Although Netflix has announced its commitment to reach net zero GHG emissions by the end of 2022, it has no commitment to reduce its water consumption. In 2018, we found out that streaming Netflix in HD for 4 hours in Australia was equivalent to using 200 litres of water, whereas every Google search takes 1 spoonful of water. The typical data centre uses 3 – 5 million gallons of water per day to cool and power its servers – equivalent to the water consumption of a city with 30 – 50k people.

Although large tech companies such as Facebook, Google and Microsoft have become much more energy and water efficient over the last decade, 1/5 of data centres still draw water from highly stressed watersheds, mostly in the Western United States.  At this rate the irresponsible consumption of water from tech companies will create competition for water in drought-stricken communities where water is scarce.

These worrying numbers are just for one streaming platform

These worrying numbers only account for one streaming platform – we haven’t even crunched the numbers for HBO, prime video and now Disney plus. However, there are actions you can take to reduce your impact.

There’s still time to change your online habits to help the climate

To reduce your carbon and water emissions from social media, you can simply decrease your activity by one hour a day for a year. We’ve estimated that if one person from the US, the EU or China cut their activity by one hour a day for a year, it could save between 9 – 21 kg of GHG emissions which is equivalent to charging your smartphone about 1,100 to 2,700 times. Another tip – using mobile data consumes 2x more energy than using WiFi, so switch to WiFi when you can!

For streaming platforms, you can watch videos on medium quality instead of ultra-HD which could save more than 75% of carbon and water. The difference between ultra and regular-HD applies to all online videos. According to the Shift Project, streaming on WiFi is 4x less energy intensive than on mobile data – so again, switch to WiFi when possible… it’s more cost efficient too!

CWR will be releasing a report early next year on small habit changes like these – stay tuned!

These are just a few changes you can make to your lifestyle. There are still many more incremental changes we can all make to improve the health and longevity of our planet. And if we all make these small habit changes, it adds up to so much more. We will be releasing a report early next year on the actions you can take to change your unsustainable online habits – find out more on that report here -, so stay tuned and let’s work together and keep our promises to stay below 2°C.


Further Reading

  • Green Clouds One Day – How does watching online videos exacerbate our climate crisis? Are big tech brands like BAT and FAAG doing enough to source more renewable energy? CWR’s Chan reviews the landscape – it looks like we will see “green clouds” one day
  • YouTube: The Dark Side Of Going Viral – We are already addicted to the internet, YouTube, Netflix, apps and still forecasts show major growth. China Water Risk’s Woody Chan unwraps the darkside of our runaway data use
  • Electronic Brands: Sustainable Or Not? – The new CLSA U® report cautions that current brand strategies only focus on short-term profits despite looming risks. Is this sustainable? China Water Risk’s Woody Chan looks at what leaders like Apple & Samsung are doing across greening supply chains, recycling and more
  • Thirsty Clouds & Smartphones – Thought you were being more environmentally friendly by accessing emails online rather than printing them, think again! Check out how water thirsty & energy hungry our cloud addiction is

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Sophie Lam
Author: Sophie Lam
Sophie has recently graduated from the University of Exeter in the UK with a BA Honours Geography degree. Her final year modules focused on sustainability and environmental issues which she is keen to explore further as commences her journey into the workforce. Through joining CWR, Sophie has had an opportunity to apply her GIS knowledge on a project examining the impact of rising sea levels and extreme weather events on the critical infrastructure in the Asia Pacific region. Sophie hopes her participation in this project will facilitate better resilience planning and the management of risks presented by the challenges of climate change.
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