The “content war” between video streaming services is driving an increasingly wasteful attitude to technology
It is a chilling thought that even as we stream videos of Storm Dennis on our phones or watch news coverage of flooded towns on our big high-definition televisions, we put more pressure on the environment.
By the time that the UK hosts the COP26 climate summit in Glasgow in November, the video-streaming wars that are consuming vast amounts of energy will have reached a new level of intensity.
Next month, the Disney+ service launches in Britain to challenge Netflix, Amazon Prime, YouTube, the BBC iPlayer and other streamers. The new HBO Max service debuts in America in May.
Digital technologies already contribute four per cent of global greenhouse emissions and that could rise to 8 per cent by 2025, New Scientist magazine reported last year. Our collective hunger for the latest video content and new tech feels progressive but it carries a future threat. The situation is likely to worsen as other content services launch.
“Electricity usage related to streaming is huge and is directly correlated to the content wars,” says Sergio Grce, chief executive, of London-based iSize Technologies, which is working to cut the environmental impact of video.
He points out that the increasing use of cameras – in home security, drones and automated vehicles – will add to the problem, even when streams are monitored by machines.
“Every encoding and every streaming will have an impact, whether it is humans or robots [watching],” he says. But video streaming (which now accounts for half of internet traffic) is only a part of the media’s impact on the planet. Just as concerning is the scourge of e-waste; the unwanted phones, laptops, cables and other electronic detritus we sling out when we upgrade to new models.
E-waste is a particular problem in the UK, where we generate 24.9kg of it per person, compared with an average 17.7 kg in the EU, according to Parliament’s Environmental Audit Committee, which opened an inquiry into e-waste last year.
“New phone launches, cheaper goods and built-in obsolescence have contributed to the growth of electronic waste in recent years,” said the committee chairwoman, Mary Creagh. “[The UK is] one of the worst offenders for exporting waste to developing countries, who are ill equipped to dispose of it in a socially and environmentally responsible way.”
The inquiry was cut short by December’s election, and by Ms Creagh losing her seat as MP for Wakefield. When a new committee is formed this month, it must renew its commitment to investigating e-waste.
Basel Action Network, an American non-governmental group, revealed last year that eggs laid by free-range chickens foraging around an e-waste dump in Ghana contained shocking amounts of dioxins (220 times safe levels). The scandal was linked to computers and other unwanted gadgetry shipped from Europe.
The media, technology and retail sectors need to clean up their acts. E-waste is often a consequence of companies being interested only in selling units. Laptops and phones are designed so they cannot be easily recycled or repaired; devices are glued and not screwed together, spare parts are unavailable and components are kept secret because of supposed commercial sensitivities.
Greenpeace and iFixit examined phones from 17 manufacturers, including Apple, Samsung and Google. “We found many brands were failing to make repair manuals and spare parts available,” says Elizabeth Jardim, a senior Greenpeace campaigner. “Common problems such as a dead battery or cracked screen were very complicated repairs, which leads to early obsolescence.”
Despite this, UK initiatives like the Restart Project, which shares skills to help people fix their broken electronics, are creating a movement of “repair activists” committed to reducing e-waste.
To reduce the environmental impact of streaming, Grce’s iSize Technologies is using artificial intelligence to reduce video files by an average 29.75 per cent, extending battery lives and cutting costs. “You have a massive reduction in the need for computational power… and a much smaller file that you need to transfer over the Internet,” he says.
We can all do our bit. Phone streaming via Wi-Fi is far more energy efficient than from a cellular network, Ms Jardim points out. “If you’re just streaming music, don’t stream songs from video platforms like YouTube that will also stream video, which equates to more data and more energy.”
She calls on internet users to pressure big tech – notably Amazon and Microsoft – to create a “greener cloud”, by powering their vast data centres by renewable energy.
Researchers at Lancaster University studied the UK’s changing viewing habits last year and found that viewers gravitate towards data-hungry options, such as HD, and families often watch different shows simultaneously on multiple devices.
The lead researcher, Kelly Widdicks, said: “It is time that we, as a society, work together to redefine our watching futures and begin dealing head-on with the unsustainable trajectory of this data demand.”