YouTube: The Dark Side Of Going Viral

By Woody Chan 18 December, 2018

Surfing YouTube & bingeing on Netflix this holiday? CWR's Chan unwraps the hidden dangers of our runaway data use for our planet

Every byte of data requires energy & water to generate & transfer, from data centres to cell towers to our devices. As the internet grows, so does its carbon & water footprint
Despacito's carbon footprint on YouTube adds up to the annual emissions of 100,000 taxis, with >400 Olympic swimming pools of water used; but just one day of Netflix globally triples that
Our rapidly expanding internet & cloud is widening our emissions gap & needs an urgent rethink; start by bingeing on medium quality & download instead of stream!

This holiday season – as you lie on your couch bingeing on Netflix after Christmas dinner, or start a long online gaming session with your friends – we have worrying news. Every time we use data, we are adding to carbon emissions and using water. So as COP24 rounds off in Katowice we look out-of-the-box at our trending digital lifestyle to see where we can cut emissions and save water.

YouTube’s “Despacito” carbon footprint = annual emissions of 100,000 taxis

Every byte of data requires energy to generate and transfer, from data centres to cell towers to our devices. As the internet boomed over the past decade, so has its energy consumption and carbon footprint.

As the internet boomed over the past decade, so has its energy consumption & carbon footprint

Take the song “Despacito” as an example, which has been played more than 5 billion times globally on YouTube.  According to the Financial Times, googling the song activates between six and eight data centres around the world, which together deliver a link to information about that pop song within a fraction of a second. Based on the current composition of the world’s electricity production, and the level of emissions from the average data centre, “Despacito”’s carbon footprint is roughly the equivalent of the annual emissions of about 100,000 taxis.


It’s not just carbon. Building on the numbers above, we estimate that the 5+ billion views have led to 4-125 million m3 of water being withdrawn due to power generation (large range due to differences in cooling tech*). At the higher range, this is the equivalent of more than 400 Olympic-sized swimming pools. This is before taking into account the water consumed at data centres on-site for cooling purposes, which can be substantial.

All these worrying numbers are only for one video on one platform – we haven’t even crunched the numbers for the likes of “Gangnam Style” and other viral videos. So what can we do? Simply streaming the song on Spotify without watching the music video can already cut the carbon footprint by a quarter. Even better? Download the song and play it from your device.

Bingeing on Netflix for one day globally could power Ireland for a month

The numbers for Netflix are also alarming, given its binge-friendly features and its longer-duration films & TV shows compared to YouTube.

In 2017, Netflix members around the world watched more than 140 million hours per day. Based on calculations from an ACEEE study from 2012**, this translates to roughly 2.2 TWh of power use from data centres to devices (assuming HD streaming). For comparison, 2.2TWh is almost three times the power use & carbon footprint of “Despacito” and equivalent to the monthly electricity use of the whole of Ireland – all this just from the world bingeing on Netflix for one day.

Just like YouTube, watching Netflix is also water intensive, even on an individual level. We estimate that if you are watching Netflix on HD for four hours in Australia, where the economy still largely runs on coal, you would be using an entire bathtub of water.

Merely by watching Netflix on medium quality instead of HD could save more than 75% of carbon & water…

… plus you can use less data & save money!


So again, what can be done? Merely by watching Netflix on medium quality instead of HD could save more than 75% of carbon and water. What’s more, this has the added benefit of using less data and saving money!

Rapidly expanding cloud means urgent re-think

Beyond YouTube and Netflix, our internet and “cloud” are growing at a rapid pace. The ICT sector, including our smartphones and other devices, could consume up to 20% of global electricity by 2025. China will be a major growth area – internet traffic in China will grow 3.7-fold from 2016 to 2021 and by 2021, the gigabyte equivalent of all movies ever made will cross China’s IP networks every 6 minutes. All this will require gigantic amounts of power and by extension, carbon and water.

Going viral & becoming “Instagram famous” may be the new lifestyle but it’s widening our emissions gap

Going viral and becoming “Instagram famous” may be the new lifestyle going forward but it has a “dark side” as it adds more gigatonnes of carbon dioxide into our atmosphere. It’s not just streaming; our addiction to fast fashion is making things worse. Instead of closing our emissions gap, we actually increased our carbon emissions in 2017 and we are not on track to keep global temperatures to below 2°C, let alone 1.5°C. Even data centre industry experts are becoming concerned, as we found recently at the 9th Annual Data Centre Dynamics (DCD) Conference in Hong Kong.

All this means we have to urgently rethink our out-of-control data economy. Downloading songs instead of streaming and watching at lower qualities will help but are there other solutions? What are brands like Google and Apple doing? How about renewable energy? We don’t have the answers now but stay tuned for next year!

* assumes thermal power generation; range includes once-through & closed loop cooling tech based on World Energy Council “Water For Energy” report (2010)
** concludes 5.12kWh per 1GB of data used from data centre to device

Further Reading 

  • Time To Get Radical – Alarm bells are ringing for climate change but we are still wedded to the ‘norm’ and on track to miss even the 2°C target. With time running out and serious implications for Asia’s water resources, China Water Risk’s Debra Tan calls for more flashes of brilliance
  • 3 People-Green-Tech Chinese Initiatives – To win its War on Pollution, China is also turning to technology to engage the public. China Water Risk’s Dawn McGregor & Yuanchao Xu share three such technologies & their success so far
  • Fashion Has The Power To Shape A 2℃ World – If fashion were a country it would have the fourth highest carbon emissions behind the US, China, & India. China Water Risk’s Dawn McGregor & Debra Tan question why the industry is not under the spotlight like coal and call for faster disruptions
  • To Tea Or Not – Black, Green Or Milk? – Tea is the second most drunk beverage after coffee but what does it mean for water, for carbon? Does the type of tea matter? Plus, see what consumers can do to reduce impact
  • Youth & Water – 3 Key Takeaways from Egypt & Stockholm – China Water Risk intern Alex Whitebrook shares key takeaways from his recent trips for the World Youth Parliament for Water. See what’s on their minds
  • 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
  • China’s Renewable Energy Quotas – China is releasing its first ever renewable energy quotas along with Renewable Energy Power Certificates to improve trading; see what these mean for provinces & renewable enterprises with China Water Risk’s Yuanchao Xu
  • Renewable Energy: Bigger Than You Think -Renewables surge as coal wanes but the bulk of the renewable energy boom is yet to come. CWR’s Thieriot on why this aggressive surge won’t be enough to solve the climate-energy nexus
  • How To Manage Water Risk In Your Growing Business – Water risk is financial risk. So how do investors and business overcome challenges and manage water risk? Trucost’s Byford Tsang and Rochelle March expand and also share the benefits
Woody Chan
Author: Woody Chan
Woody Chan leads corporate social responsibility and sustainability initiatives at foodpanda, strengthening its commitment to grow sustainably with its ecosystem of riders, merchants, and consumers. As an advocate for environmental sustainability, Woody has also participated in various speaking engagements, from TEDx talks and university seminars to industry forums and panels.
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