Green streaming is coming

20 gram of beef, or 0.5 kg carbon. That’s what a year of listening to Spotify equals. At least if we use new numbers available from last year’s sustainability report. A year of Netflix usage, 150 times Spotify, but still not that much. Streaming is actually pretty green, and getting greener. And what you should really do as a user of these services? Get a renewable energy electricity deal!

Spotify 2020 sustainability report

Spotify Sustainability Report 2021.

Happy to see Spotify having published their 2020 sustainability report. Having been part of producing all previous reports, and been the initial driver for including climate ambitions I’m glad to see increased ambitions around climate. 

For the first time there are full impact numbers on (almost, creating content is not included) the complete value chain: 169,000 ton in total, or 26 ton per employee. This makes it possible to more holistically evaluate the climate impact of audio (music/podcasts) streaming. 

Secondly, Spotify commit to the Paris agreement, ”we will seek to set reduction targets in line with the Paris Agreement”, which is something I personally argued for, and something a believe every company and organization needs to stand behind, as stated in the report: ”aligning our operations with a net-zero society”.

Spotify climate goals.

Thirdly, climate neutral goals have now been extended to the (again: almost) whole value chain, including for example Spotify users charging their phones: as long as there are emissions in the value chain, these will be ”offset”: 

”We also know that time is running out and urgent climate action needs to happen right now. And to meet the immediate demands for action, emissions that cannot be reduced are offset. Spotify is from 2020 committing to offsetting our total impact, expanding from air travel to including the total scope 1, 2 and 3.”

I personally prefer to see ”offsetting” as climate investments, creating an internal company tax on carbon emissions that are put into good use, but regardless how we name these initiatives it means a 5x increase in internal climate funds that are used for climate investments/offsetting. A guestimate is that the total climate budget for 2020 would land around $2.5 million  (the average Gold Standard project being $15/ton), which is a tiny fraction of total revenue (€2,168 million, a x10 required to become a onceprecent company), but ads substantial investment capacity (Stripes negative emission budget is floored at $1 million, to compare with something).

These are great news, and a good move towards greener streaming.

Green streaming

While still at Spotify, my hope was that Spotify would position itself at the vanguard of a vision of Green Streaming for Everyone. The new report, with higher ambitions, is a step in that direction.

What would Green Streaming mean? And how far away are we?

To me, Green Streaming is a 100 % carbon free end to end consumer experience. I do believe carbon neutrality is a good goal, on the way towards being completely carbon free, it helps put a focus on climate work, put a price on carbon emissions and bring money into needed investments, but as long as you have emissions, you have emissions, which you should strive to remove (there is a burgeoning market for carbon removal methods, it’s promising, it’s needed, and it will get you carbon free, but it’s tiny tiny).

Take Google cloud for example. It’s 100 % carbon neutral, but it’s not carbon free. There are many hours where a Google cloud center will run on ”brown” energy. It will later be compensated by for example bringing green energy onto the grid, but what carbon Google put out, they put out. This is unfortunately not information you as a Google cloud user can get hold of. Google does not release energy numbers or carbon emissions. You can not adapt your usage of Google cloud to hours where it’s run on renewable energy.

Google cloud energy mix example.

Unfortunately this is not something Google plans to fix (as far as I know). Fortunately they are aware of the need for real carbon free cloud services and has set very ambitious and inspirational goal to run on 24/7 Carbon-Free energy by 2030

”In 2007, we became carbon neutral and in 2017, we became the first company of our size to match 100% of our global, annual electricity consumption with renewable energy. Today, we are the largest annual corporate purchaser of renewable energy in the world. Now, we’re carving a path forward to decarbonize our electricity supply completely and operate on 24/7 carbon-free energy, everywhere, by 2030.”

Streaming is thereby getting greener and greener thanks to cloud vendors such as Google and Microsoft taking climate impact seriously.

But streaming is more than data centers. Over the years there’s been numerous reports on how much the global IT-industry contributes to carbon emissions. Unfortunately that has not been easily estimated, especially when reported as emissions for sending a mail, doing a google search or streaming a video. It’s complicated for a whole slay of reasons: the life of a digital entity from creator to consumer includes so many different vendors (from computer manufacturers, distributor, cloud provider, ISP:s and telcos to home equipment). 

BBC streaming value chain.

Understanding and summing that up has not been for the faint of hearted, as recently illustrated by George Kamiya where he shows how a widely shared belief that streaming 30 minutes of a Netflix video would result in 1.6 kg CO2 is exaggerated, ”by up to 90-time”. While I was engaged in Green Streaming one main challenge was basically understanding what footprint streaming had. Without data it’s hard to set a strategy.

0.5 kg per year

Finally we are however starting to see real numbers being published by the distributors themselves, such as Netflix and Spotify. British BBC did early research around the topic with some important findings: 

  • Delivering 1 hour of streamed television emits between 3 and 9 gram CO2!
  • Power consumption of end user devices constitute a large part of that emission.
  • Production of content constituted 12 – 35 % of emissions.

Recently Netflix pre-released their numbers, using the same type of tool and methods BBC used, presenting a 10x number compared to the BBC ones: ”one hour of streaming on its platform in 2020 used less than 100gCO2e”. 2019 an average Netflix user watched 2 hours of Netflix each day. On average each Netflix user thereby emits 73 kg CO2 per year

We are now able to compare that to Spotify and audio streaming (although it is not clear if content production emissions are included in Netflix’ numbers, most probably not included in the Spotify numbers). Given 169,000 ton total emission for Spotify and 345 million monthly active users 2020, each consumer would result in 0.5 kg CO2 per year.

0.5 kg CO2 per end user streaming music and podcast, that is, by almost any comparison, not much. It’s like buying a thin printed book per year, or consuming 20 g beef. 73 kg for watching Netflix a year, it’s like burning 25 liters of gasoline, or consuming 3 kg beef. It’s not much either.

It’s still CO2 though, contributing to the climate crisis. And since both Spotify and Netflix have such huge user bases, their aggregated carbon footprint is not negligible. And if you as a consumer start to sumarize your complete internet (and energy usage), it’s probably not negligible either. 

So what’s next?

With both Google and Microsoft (Amazon need to shape up) having real zero emission targets, and concrete plans to reach those, the streaming gigants, and any provider of internet services, can just enjoy the work they are doing.

42 % of emissions are from listener use, according to Spotify. This is inline with early BBC findings which estimated home equipment energy consumption to be around  37 -78 % of carbon footprint. As far as I can tell the Spotify numbers for listeners include telcos and ISP:s, i.e. that provide end users with their internet connection, whether it’s fiber or 4G.

Spotify and Netflix can only do so much about end user behaviour. They can obviously put pressure on telcos to be much more transparent (which has typically not been the case) with their carbon footprint and continue to enhance their own green profiles. 

There is also a call to us end user in these numbers:

  • Switch to a renewable energy only electricity deal (easy in Sweden, might be trickier at other places, but go Bulb for example).
  • Start asking for a zero emission broadband and mobile plans (Honest mobile in UK and ETC Mobil in Sweden offers climate neutral plans).

That would make streaming green for real.

Or will Netflix or Spotify have to provide these services themselves? If they want to go real green? A green electricity deal as a top up off the subscription or a carbon removal option? 

Green Streaming seems to actually be within reach.

That is just great. 

And then it’s the hardware. A new smartphone is 55 kg CO2, as an example. That’s another story.

Författare: pra

Contractor, trainer and author @, ex tribe lead at Spotify & agile coach at Crisp. Active Linux and OSS advocate and developer since 1995 and a former journalist and social scientist. Also loves outdoor activities and wine.