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Streaming services and 5G drive CO2 emissions of the Internet skyward
IT use is responsible for 3.7 percent of all CO2 emissions, with streaming being one of the biggest culprits

No other online activity requires as much energy as streaming. No matter whether it’s watching tv shows online, enjoying music or how-to videos on youtube or eyeing up holiday clips on social media networks such as Facebook and Instagram: “Ten hours of HD video comprises more data than all the articles in English on Wikipedia in text format”, says the report titled ‘Climate Crisis: The Unsustainable Use of Online Video’. It was published by French thinktank ‘The Shift Project’, which sheds a light on greenhouse gas emissions related to using IT.

Thinktank calls for digital sobriety

According to The Shift Project, more than 300 million metric tons of carbon equivalent were expelled into the atmosphere as a result of streaming in 2018. This is as much as one percent of all global greenhouse gas emissions, and a solid third was attributable to video-on-demand devices such as netflix and amazon prime alone.

The thinktank is now calling for more “digital sobriety” and is criticising “addictive” features such as autoplay, which automatically queues new videos. Analysts assume that emissions will continue to rise due to the behaviour of Internet users.

This prognosis hardly comes as a surprise if one considers the continuous rise in the quality of video formats and the expansion of broadband connections around the globe. Another driving factor is likely to be the increasing capacity of mobile networks. A study conducted by RWTH Aachen for energy company E.ON has come to the conclusion that data centres will be responsible for 13 percent of global power consumption in 2030.

5G will only make matters worse

According to the study, Germany is set to consume an additional 3.8 terawatt hours (TWh) in 2025 simply as a result of introducing the 5G mobile phone standard. This represents 0.74 percent of the country’s electricity consumption in 2018. According to E.ON, this is as much energy as is consumed by 2.5 million inhabitants. In mid-2019, E.ON subsidiary Syna commissioned a transformer station for the data centres around the Frankfurt am Main Internet hub that would be capable of supplying 160,000 households with electricity.

Data traffic and power consumption are not only set to rise because 5G would make it possible for films to be streamed on the go: “5G will enable companies to build their own mobile networks. Self-propelled robots will be able to network with machines and exchange information in smart factories.”

“This is why data centres should be used to supply heat to housing estates and entire city districts.” Karsten Wildberger, Board Member at E.ON

For E.ON Board Member Karsten Wildberger, it is crucial that low-emissions solutions be used to cover this increase in energy demand from the outset. Sustainable power sources are only a starting point. Sector coupling is another: “As it stands, the waste heat from data centres is all too often ignored,” says Wildberger. “This is why data centres should be used to supply heat to housing estates and entire city districts.” According to the RWTH study, up to eight terawatt hours of waste heat could be available in 2025.

Green Internet Day 2020: E.ON promotes green data centers.


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More emissions than air traffic

The lion’s share of IT-based energy consumption – and thus of related emissions – is by no means generated when charging mobile phones and laptops. The Shift Project had already come to this conclusion in a previous study: it noted that only 20 percent of IT emissions are caused by the use of end devices and around 45 percent is emitted when manufacturing smartphones, computers, servers, routers, etc. The rest is generated by the power consumption of data centres (19 percent) and networks (16 percent).

According to The Shift Project, working on computers, chatting online with friends and – above all – watching videos on the Internet already accounts for 3.7 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions. By way of comparison: commercial aviation emits less than three percent.

Internet facts:
  • If the Internet were a country, it would be the sixth-largest consumer of electricity on the planet.
  • Digital technologies are currently responsible for 3.7 percent of greenhouse gas emissions – more than is generated by international air travel.
  • Video streaming accounts for as much as 80 percent of this figure. Video-on-demand alone generates as much greenhouse gas as the whole of Chile (over 100 metric megatons of carbon dioxide per year).
  • In Germany alone, there are more than 53,000 data centres with over 2 million servers.
  • Introducing 5G could result in an additional 3.8 billion kilowatt hours of power consumption.
  • Only 19 percent of the world’s data centres reuse a portion of their waste heat.

Photo credit: © Tero Vesalainen,

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