By Anders Lorenzen
Our addiction to smartphones and our appetite for internet video content grows in line with behavioural changes. But the environmental and climate impacts in the connection to the increased usage are not often talked about. Every time we access information online that data needs to be stored somewhere, in “the cloud”. The information stored in the cloud is run by data centres and in return they need power. It is how these centres are being powered that determines the carbon footprint of specific companies, and which in return determines their green scorecard.
One of the fastest growing tech companies is Netflix, which in a matter of years, has changed how we watch TV and film and what is available to us. Netflix has also backed key environment and climate change films and programmes, which might not have been bought by national broadcasters and therefore would not get a global impact without Netflix. So with that in mind, they do a good job in creating awareness and highlighting this pivotal issue. However, new research from Greenpeace has found that Netflix is not doing such a good job when it comes to choosing clean and not dirty energy. The environmental activist organisation listed Netflix as one of the worst of those companies on the long list of companies they researched. Only Twitter scored worse.
But how did Greenpeace arrive at their findings, and are they credible? Calculating the carbon footprint of tech giants is no easy task. This is because they often use other tech companies for their operation. The case of Netflix is no exception. It is all about the cloud and who runs the cloud service. In the case of Netflix, Amazon Web Services (AWS) run their cloud system, and therefore also their data centres. So in order to calculate Netflix’s carbon emissions, you must calculate the carbon emissions of AWS. Greenpeace’s research found that there were very few renewable inputs, only 17%, in the operation of AWS’s data centres, compared to 24% natural gas, 30% coal and 26% nuclear. Their rapidly expanding data centres are mostly housed in coal-rich Virginia where they are even dragging the average down to about 3% of renewables. Occasionally, some of their other data centres have a high penetration of renewable, for example, Boardman, Oregon with 85% or even Montreal, Canada with a staggering 99%. But these are rare occurrences in AWS’s energy mix.
Greenpeace launched a similar campaign against Facebook back in 2011 when the world’s largest social media site was mainly powered by coal. Today the picture is different; Facebook has completely changed course and is fast moving closer to its aim of being 100% powered by renewable energy. And new data centres are now constructed strategically in areas where they can harness renewable energy sources. Greenpeace campaigners will hope to persuade Netflix to do the same. And they have urged their members and supporters to sign a petition asking Netflix to go green.
Netflix has as yet not publicly responded to the Greenpeace campaign.