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.

 

The titans of technology have feet of clay

Technology seems unstoppable. The accumulated wealth of the Big Five: Apple, Alphabet (Google’s parent company), Microsoft, Facebook and Amazon, have a combined value of $4 trillion. That’s more than twice Canada’s annual GDP.

     image: Minneapolis/St.Paul Business Journal

Wall Street also looked unstoppable before the crash of 2008. Cryptic investments made amazing returns but finance wizardry also has feet of clay. Conor Sen, business columnist for Bloomberg Views, summarizes that vulnerability:

“Markets became irrational about how profitable the financial sector could become relative to the underlying economy, and in response to these market pressures, finance came up with increasingly elaborate schemes to make money that weren’t sustainable (Globe and Mail).”

Facebook and Google have the advertising world wrapped up. The clever duo don’t have to hire reporters to dig up news because users generate their own content.  Facebook and Google and benefit in three ways: by encouraging users to generate content, collecting detailed profiles of users, and then selling advertisements to those very users. Users happily post pictures of adorable kittens, videos, inflammatory and sometimes interesting comments (but not much actual news).

While Facebook and Google couldn’t care less about the loss of newspapers and other news sources, they should be worried about the financial health of their advertisers. Companies can afford to advertise only because they are viable. Amazon is profitable because third-party vendors choose to sell on Amazon.

“In other words,” says Sen, “for the most part, the big five tech companies exist at their current size and scale only because they serve a larger underlying economy of profitable companies.”

Tech giants exist in an economic ecosystem. There has to be a balance between the top predators and the health of the ecosystem which they feed. There’s going to be trouble for the big fish once the little fish stop feeding them.

Tech giants don’t just suck only advertising revenue from traditional sources. They also provide services that didn’t exist when newspapers ruled; like the cloud computing services provided by Amazon, Google and Microsoft. Cloud computing also depends on a viable economy.

The titans of technology could harm the very businesses they depend on. For example, Blue Apron, a meal-delivery company, has been a prolific online advertiser. What if Amazon were to establish a company and put Blue Apron out of business? It’s not inconceivable. Last year, Amazon bought Whole Foods for $17 billion and even the world’s biggest retailer Walmart took notice. Target is cutting advertising to stay in the game.

Fossil Group has been struggling lately. Sales of their watch have been dropping, perhaps because of the popularity of Apple Watch. If Fossil Group starts to cut back on advertising, Facebook and Google would lose ad revenue. Amazon would lose sales of the Fossil watch as well.

Owning a newspaper used to be a licence to print money. The marriage of news and advertising seemed solid. Now readers get “news” from the internet. Selling advertising on a medium where the content is generated by the target audience seems like a sure thing.

Amazon, Google and Facebook have a parasitic relationship to the economy. Other than advertising and marketing the products of others, their contribution to the economy is minimal.