Who is responsible for the CO2 produced by streaming?

Two decades of Eye View

This column marks twenty years of writing Eye View. Thanks to former editors of the Kamloops Daily News Susan Duncan and Mel Rothenburger for encouraging me to write, to CFJC Today for their support, and to James Peters for helping me to refine my writing and carefully read what I’ve written (I’m a lousy editor).

I’m seldom at a loss for subjects. What motivates me is my curiosity of the world and my desire to share what I found in a clear and concise manner. My ultimate goal is to write the perfect column. Maybe I’ll live long enough.

 

Who is responsible for the CO2 produced by streaming?

We are regularly reminded to reduce energy our consumption by replacing lightbulbs but when was the last time we were reminded to stream less?

Server Farm.  Image: Los Angles Times

The videos we watch consume 80 per cent of energy used by energy farms located around the world. Netflix alone pumps out over one billion hours of video a week. Now Disney and Apple have started streaming services. Streaming is just part of the picture says Jane Kearns, vice-president at MaRS Discovery District:

“Add those to our video chats, music playlists, online games, virtual assistants, smart thermostats and global positioning systems. Throw in road sensors, surveillance cameras and cryptocurrencies; and, soon, 5G connectivity, remote surgeries and autonomous transportation (Globe and Mail, Dec. 9, 2109)”

Even a simple search on Google adds up. A typical search requires as much energy as illuminating a 60-watt light bulb for 17 seconds.

While lightbulb replacement is promoted as an energy saver, no one reminds us to stream less. Perhaps it’s because server farms are so invisible: videos seems to descend from the clouds.

Yet, there are over eight million server farms around the world running full-tilt, all hours of the day. The fact that these processing machines are working 24/7 at maximum output barely registers on us. These invisible machines use 200 terawatt hours a year, about one-half of Canada’s annual electricity consumption. They emit roughly as much CO2 as the airline industry. And with global data traffic more than doubling every four years, they are growing fast.

It’s part of a bigger problem: when servers are located in a specific country but internet use is international, which country is responsible for the greenhouse gases they produce?

Northern countries are ideal for locating servers because the biggest cost is in cooling the computers. Companies like to build them where the weather is temperate – countries such as Iceland, Ireland, Finland, and Canada. Or where there’s lots of water for cooling. It doesn’t seem fair that those countries must add the CO2 produced by these servers to their total commitment.

British Columbia faces a similar situation with natural gas which it plans to export to Asia. Since natural gas will, theoretically, replace coal-fired generators, should B.C. be credited with the net reduction in CO2 or China?

It’s the same problem for China, where goods are made for sale globally by manufacturers burning fossil fuels in China.

The problem of energy consumed locally for global use needs to be addressed but when nations won’t own up to CO2 produced for local consumption, streaming will remain someone else’s problem.

 

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