How your binge-watching habit is ruining the environment

Talking to the tech giants about their impact on the Earth.

 

AJ Dellinger

Tech

Published May 21, 2015   Updated May 28, 2021, 7:04 pm CDT

We have a habit of thinking of the Internet as an entirely virtual thing, but all of that data has to go somewhere. The Internet might not be a series of tubes, but it has a massive, growing physical presence with a huge demand for energy.

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According to this year’s Clicking Clean report, an annual evaluation of clean energy initiatives conducted by Greenpeace, all of your binge-watching and aimless Internet browsing might be irreversibly affecting the planet. So thanks for that.

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“Many people are surprised when they hear that their online world has such a significant environmental footprint; we were a bit surprised ourselves when we did our first analysis,” Greenpeace Senior Climate and Energy Campaigner Dave Pomerantz told the Daily Dot. “It requires a lot of electricity to power our digital world, and that amount is rapidly increasing each year.”

According to Greenpeace’s analysis, the combined demand for electricity of our digital infrastructure would rank sixth in the world among all countries. As we continue to ditch the physical in exchange for digital, the demand for servers to handle all of that data increases. Streaming services are cited by Greenpeace as one of the biggest driving forces for the increase in energy consumption.

All of this seems counterintuitive to how we generally see these things. Watching a movie on Netflix as opposed to going to the theater eliminates the carbon emissions of cars and requires significantly less electricity to keep the lights on in your home than the theater. And streaming does away with the need for a physical disc, which has to be produced and transported to a store creating a larger carbon footprint with each step it takes getting to your living room.

Greenpeace reports over a half-dozen major Internet companies have made a commitment to being entirely powered by renewable energy, including Facebook, Google, and Amazon. 

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But Greenpeace’s findings suggest that we’re thinking about this the wrong way. New models of distribution simply shift the energy demands over to the servers that host the content. Greenpeace’s report notes that in somes cases, this new digital frontier may ultimately lead to higher amounts of electricity consumption.

“Unless leading internet companies find a way to leapfrog traditional, polluting sources of electricity, the convenience of streaming could cause us to increase our carbon footprint,” the report warns. Imagine your computer the same way you do a gas-guzzling car; with every click of the play button, a puff of smog coughs out of an exhaust pipe on your machine.

Leading the charge

The Clicking Clean report is not a damning indictment of our online habits nor the tech industry as a whole. On the contrary, Greenpeace highlights companies going out of their way to achieve 100 percent clean energy production.

Apple continues to lead the charge when it comes to green technology, and is lauded by Greenpeace for having achieved 100 percent clean energy usage for its services. The only company to count solely on renewable resources for its power source, Apple received a flawless scorecard from Greenpeace, netting “A” grades in the four categories tracked in the report: energy transparency, renewable energy commitment, energy efficiency, and renewable energy deployment and advocacy.

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Others have followed closely in Apple’s footsteps. Greenpeace reports over a half-dozen major Internet companies have made a commitment to being entirely powered by renewable energy, including Facebook, Google, and Amazon.

Google has been one of the most successful companies in making a push toward a more eco-friendly Web. The search giant has been carbon neutral since 2007 and has matched Apple in its deployment of renewable energy as the company expands.

A Google spokesperson told the Daily Dot the company’s infrastructure is “one of the most efficient data center infrastructures in the world; we use less than half the energy of a typical data center.” A recent blog post from Google emphasizes the company’s intentions to get more renewable energy on the grid with investments in wind that build upon its extensive efforts.

“Eight major Internet companies have now committed to be 100 percent renewably powered in the past four years, and the beginnings of a competition within the sector are taking form, which will hopefully continue to spread and accelerate,” Pomerantz said.

Lagging behind

Despite successes within the tech sector as a whole, Greenpeace does point the finger at companies the organization feels aren’t making enough strides when it comes to the environment. Amazon bears the brunt of the ire, getting slapped with an “F” in energy transparency and a pair of “D” marks in energy efficiency and deployment and advocacy, respectively.

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“Amazon’s adoption of a 100 [percent] renewable energy goal, while potentially significant, lacks basic transparency,” the report states, “and, unlike similar commitments from Apple, Facebook or Google, does not yet appear to be guiding Amazon’s investment decisions toward renewable energy and away from coal.”

The report takes specific aim at Amazon Web Services, the cloud-based platform offered by the multi-faceted commerce company. Some of the Web’s biggest attractions count on AWS to keep them online, including the likes of Netflix and Reddit, among others.

Amazon disputes the report. A spokesperson for AWS told the Daily Dot, “It’s unfortunate that Greenpeace’s report is inaccurate and misguided again. As has been the case the last couple years, Greenpeace reports inaccurate data about the energy consumption and renewable mix of AWS’s global infrastructure. We’ve told Greenpeace it’s wrong, but they chose to publish it anyway. ?We continue to publish data about our actual energy mix and new developments toward achieving our long-term goal of 100 percent renewable on our Sustainable Energy webpage.”

Amazon also chided Greenpeace for focusing too heavily on hot issues close to the organization’s heart, which, according to the spokesperson, causes Greenpeace to “miss the forest for the trees.” As the spokesperson said: “an analysis on green energy that fails to prioritize resource utilization and energy efficiency, effectively ignoring where the biggest gains in the datacenter industry are being made (moving from many under-utilized, on-premises datacenters to fewer highly utilized cloud computing datacenters) is a misguided analysis.”

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Greenpeace contends that it shared its information with Amazon before publishing anything. “They disagreed with our data, but refused to disclose their own data for their energy demand or mix of energy sources,” Pomerantz said.

 “They disagreed with our data, but refused to disclose their own data.” 

Without participation from Amazon, Greenpeace counted on publicly available information to make estimates on the company’s energy consumption. Greenpeace disclosed the entirety of its research into AWS in a blog post by senior IT analyst Gary Cook.

“We have no interest in getting Amazon’s data wrong, Pomerantz contends, “which is why we asked them to share their own, as Apple and Facebook do—and as many of their customers have requested of them. They declined.”

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There is common ground to be found on the issue, however. Pomerantz said Greenpeace and Amazon are in agreement that efficient cloud computing has the potential to reduce the power demand of the Internet.

“But that potential dissolves if the cloud data centers that Amazon is building are powered by fossil fuels, and not renewable energy,” he explained. “Efficiency is important, but if this improvement in efficiency results in an increase in the demand of coal and other sources of dirty energy rather than renewable energy, we are going backwards, not forwards. We hope that Amazon’s long-term commitment to 100 percent renewable energy indicates that we agree on that point.”

Greenpeace did estimate that AWS runs on 23 percent clean energy. According to Amazon’s own Sustainable Energy data, approximately 25 percent of energy consumed by the company’s global infrastructure comes from renewable energy sources as of April.

Real hurdles for the digital world

Finger-pointing aside, there are much bigger problems facing Amazon and others as they attempt to press toward sustainability. For one, existing utilities companies have far less motivation to clean up their act.

In many areas, electric utilities are held by a monopoly that offers little by way of renewable energy sources—and what they do offer is often overpriced and prohibitively expensive.

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Take Virginia, a state through which nearly 70 percent of all global Internet traffic passes on a daily basis. Ground zero for data center growth in the United States, the state’s power grid is dominated by Dominion Resources, a utility company that relies primarily on so-called “dirty” sources for electricity.

Amazon is one of several companies undertaking rapid growth in Virginia, and faces trouble rectifying the disconnect that occurs when it connects to a grid powered primarily by gas and coal.

These troubles don’t necessarily require uprooting the infrastructure and moving out of town. Instead, Pomerantz suggests the presence of these companies on the grid could be used as leverage to make larger changes.

“Many of these companies have a great deal of political leverage; their data centers are coveted investments by state governments and utilities, he explained. “In places where the grid is powered by monopoly utilities generating dirty forms of energy, Amazon, Microsoft, and other companies must do a better job of using their clout to demand more renewable energy for themselves and all other electricity customers.”

In recent years, the tech sector has become less shy about imposing its will when possible. Most major companies have pulled out of the American Legislative Exchange Council, an organization of conservative policymakers that Greenpeace accuses of “collaborating with many of the nation’s worst polluters to kill clean energy and climate policies around the country.”

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The Reddits, Imgurs, Vines, and Pinterests of the world keep growing and require more physical space for the amount of virtual world they occupy. 

Google spends an unsettling amount of time on Capitol Hill lobbying for various causes and legislation and has found time to press for clean energy policies, submitting comments in favor of the Environmental Protection Agency’s Clean Energy Plan.

Multiple companies from the tech industry signed off on the World Wildlife Fund’s “Corporate Renewable Energy Buyers’ Principles,” and Facebook and Microsoft have both previously waded into local politics to encourage environmentally friendly energy policies in regions where the companies may one day expand.

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Power to the people

What makes the rapid expansion of these tech giants possible and what makes their presence so sought after is the massive number of users that many sites are attracting. The Reddits, Imgurs, Vines, and Pinterests of the world keep growing and require more physical space for the amount of virtual world they occupy.

Pomerantz suggests it might take an extra bit of nudging to push companies—Amazon, especially—toward a smaller footprint and a cleaner existence.

“Companies that rely on AWS for their infrastructure and value sustainability need to leverage their relationship as a customer and ask AWS for change,” he said. “They can start by asking AWS to provide them data about their own carbon and energy footprint—something that AWS should be providing as basic customer service—and should also ask AWS how it will increase the amount of renewable energy.”

Pomerantz said most businesses have renewable energy goals in mind for their companies, and need to understand what their energy footprint is in order to judge their ability to achieve those goals. “If AWS continues to expand rapidly in its dirtiest regions like Virginia, or if AWS doesn’t respond to its customers’ requests, customers may ultimately need to consider other vendors,” he said.

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If the vendors don’t put pressure on the companies that provide them server space, then the onus is on the users of those sites to let it be known the importance of going green.

“Consumers often have strong connections to the online platforms they are using, and do not want them powered with coal and other dirty energy sources,” he said. “We saw that when Facebook users challenged the social network to ‘unfriend’ coal in 2010, and again in 2012 when Apple customers asked Apple to embrace a commitment to 100 percent renewable energy. Their customers care, their employees care, and as a result more and more Internet companies have recognized the need to power their growth with renewable energy.”   

Before clicking that next cat GIF, think of where it came from and how it got to you. If you value going green, and the websites you visit aren’t looking to alternate energy sources, it may be time to start looking for alternate websites.

Photo via Chi King/Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

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*First Published: May 21, 2015, 4:51 am CDT