YouTube videos have a huge carbon footprint. Here's a simple fix

Researchers have found that watching YouTube videos creates as many carbon emissions globally as a city of about half a million people. A Sustainable Interaction Design expert argues that one simple change could make a big difference.

Reducing the digital waste of billions of views

Imagine how much energy it would save if we could just listen to the audio from YouTube videos when we wanted to. (The Associated Press/Jenny Kane)

Ways to reduce your personal carbon footprint might include driving a more fuel efficient car, insulating your house, or buying locally produced food.

But collectively, we might also want to consider the 'digital waste' generated by watching videos on YouTube. 

Chris Preist is a Professor of Sustainability & Computer Systems at the University of Bristol. In a research study he and his colleagues considered all the energy used by the over a billion hours of YouTube videos watched globally every day.

Chris Preist (Twitter)

Using data from 2016, he and his colleagues analyzed the carbon footprint of YouTube and estimated the emissions associated with YouTube to be about the equivalent of 10 megatons of carbon dioxide. Preist said that "is roughly the same as a kind of medium sized city something like greater Glasgow."

He argues that design changes—specifically something called Sustainable Interaction Design—can help digital platforms reduce their carbon footprint.

"What we believe is that effectively you can incorporate emissions and energy factors into the design of digital systems in such a way to reduce the emissions and still provide people with a good service," Preist told Spark host Nora Young.

For example, they looked at a proposal from another group of researchers who identified the fact that many of us use YouTube as a source of music and other audio, without actually watching the video.

"We looked at this as a kind of example of digital waste where there's information being sent across which is not being used," Preist explained.

They considered what could happen if YouTube gave all users the option to stream the audio without video. "We found that quite substantial reductions could be produced. We're looking at about of the order of 300 kilotonnes of CO2 a year, which is roughly the same as a small airport."

This work demonstrates that digital platforms with billions of users can have a significant impact on their carbon footprint by incorporating sustainable interaction design.

"I believe that companies should assess the end to end footprint of digital services," said Preist. "Think about what design changes can be made that will reduce their energy use, while not compromising their business models and user experience too much—and go ahead and make those changes."


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