Making the Future of Streaming Media More Sustainable

As IT sustainability becomes a business imperative, experts examine streaming video's carbon footprint and how IT innovation can lower its environmental impact.

By Chase Guttman

By Chase Guttman April 18, 2024

Audiences today have access to more entertainment than at any other time in history. And thanks to streaming technology, much of that entertainment is at their fingertips, in the palm of their hands and in their back pockets. It seems innocent enough. In the context of climate change, however, the simple act of lying on the couch and watching television may be hazardous to the planet’s health.

Consider this: Streaming just a single half-hour television show has the same carbon footprint as driving around 100 meters in a regular car, according to Carbon Brief. As streaming entertainment tightens its chokehold on the world of media with rapid global growth, its environmental impacts are becoming harder to ignore.

“Streaming by itself is responsible for 1% of global greenhouse gas emissions,” said Laura Marks, a professor and researcher at Simon Fraser University in Burnaby, British Columbia, Canada.

Fortunately, the same technology that enabled the streaming revolution in the first place – cloud computing – might hold the key to making it more sustainable.

Skating on Thin Ice

Marks was part of a team of researchers who looked at the ascendancy of streaming and concluded that its dominance within the media landscape comes with substantial environmental costs. Instant and on-demand video delivery depends on server farms of enormous scale, she and her colleagues observed. These sites consume extraordinary quantities of energy, often created by burning dirty fossil fuels, with significant implications for climate change.

“The carbon footprint of information and communication technology (ICT) as a whole was found to be about 3.9% and growing by 4% a year,” Marks said. 

“The airline industry is estimated at 2% to 4% of greenhouse gas emissions. And while everybody's all over the airline industry, most people don't pay attention to ICT at all. This is where the danger lies. It’s popular to think that our internet and our devices are kind of immaterial, so people will keep demanding more and more of them.”


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The rise of streaming comes at a pivotal time for the planet: 2023 once again broke the record for the hottest year ever. And as governments scramble to keep temperatures from ticking even further upward, video consumption is becoming an increasingly outsized piece of the puzzle.

“In places where the infrastructure is robust, a lot of people are wanting to stream at 4K or even at 8K,” Marks said. 

“At the same time, in parts of the world where the middle class is rising, like China and India, there's an aspiration to also have access to high-resolution streaming. Individually and globally the demand for high-resolution is rising and it’s the main cause of the carbon footprint of streaming. 

“Of course, people are also streaming a lot. People stream for many hours a day when you consider the many devices and platforms people are using across Netflix, social media, YouTube, video chats, video embedded in websites and more, so it’s very quickly becoming the norm to stream for hours a day at as high a resolution as possible.”


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With the recent announcement of the next generation of WiFi, faster internet could induce even more interest in this kind of entertainment.

This international surge creates an imperative for immediate innovations in sustainability and green streaming technologies.

The Silver Bullet

Swedish company Scalstrm is among streaming platforms using cloud computing to address the environmental footprint of streaming entertainment.

“By leveraging cloud infrastructure for our deployments, Scalstrm reduces the need for physical servers and hardware, resulting in a significant reduction in energy consumption and carbon emissions,” the company shared in an article on LinkedIn

“This approach allows for efficient resource allocation, ensuring that server capacity is utilized optimally without unnecessary waste. The scalability and elasticity of cloud-based deployments enable dynamic resource allocation, allowing for efficient scaling up or down based on demand, further reducing energy usage and minimizing the environmental impact. Cloud deployment also enables centralized management and monitoring, streamlining operations and reducing the need for on-site maintenance and physical infrastructure.”


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Marks echoed the promise of cloud computing.

“Cloud computing could be a solution,” she said. 

“It’s more efficient because it’s basically a number of linked servers, so they can share the labor amongst them, which has the potential to decrease the amount of labor done by one server and therefore the amount of electricity being used.”

Cloud infrastructure efficiency makes cloud streaming an attractive solution to environmentally-minded developers.

Compression algorithms could also hold the key to shaping a more sustainable streaming ecosystem by alleviating the strain on servers and lessening overall energy consumption.

“When a video is streamed, a compression algorithm is applied in the server, and it takes a considerable amount of electricity to calculate that algorithm,” Marks said. 

“The new trend is to write algorithms that pass the work of decompression on to the end user, so it lightens the effort on the data center.”

Marks sees green coding and good-enough computing – where computer calculations are approximated to save on processing work – could also help.

Doing Their Part

Many of the massive companies at the heart of this new entertainment frontier are taking action to address the consequences of their products.

“Netflix is more efficient than other streaming companies because they have a server in every medium- to large-sized city that holds most of the movies and shows that are popular in that city and are refreshed daily,” Marks said. 


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“That means the streams that are called for in that city are not going to be long-distance or international streams. They're going to be local streams. YouTube is pretty good at making streaming more efficient, too, by detecting the resolution of the receiving device – whether it is a mobile phone or a smart TV – and adjusting the screen accordingly.”

Netflix has pledged to become net-zero with help from carbon offsetting, and has committed to cutting its emissions in half by 2030. These efforts have also permeated the company’s film productions, which strive to use electric cars, electric generators and even hydrogen power.

Streaming has revolutionized the world of entertainment, giving millions of users’ instantaneous access to incredibly vast libraries of television, movies, podcasts and music. But this improbable transformation isn’t without repercussions. As the streaming carbon footprint continues to intensify, technologists will have to keep deploying the cloud and reconfiguring their algorithms to create a universe where people can enjoy both peak entertainment and a healthy planet. 

If they do, watching your favorite show may soon be a guilt-free activity once again.

Chase Guttman is a technology writer. He’s also an award-winning travel photographer, Emmy-winning drone cinematographer, author, lecturer and instructor. His book, The Handbook of Drone Photography, was one of the first written on the topic and received critical acclaim. Find him at or @chaseguttman.

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