Huge amounts of energy are needed to power the servers and networks that let YouTube viewers watch more than one billion hours of video every day.
Based on estimates of the electric energy used to provide YouTube videos globally in 2016, a team at the University of Bristol calculated that the firm’s carbon footprint is around 10 million tonnes of CO2 equivalent per year, roughly the same as Luxembourg or Zimbabwe.
A single design change – letting users listen to audio on YouTube with an inactive screen – could reduce its carbon footprint by between 100 to 500 thousand tonnes of CO2 equivalent per year. This reduction is roughly equivalent to the annual carbon footprint of 30,000 UK homes.
Currently, the feature is only available to YouTube Premium subscribers. For non-paying users, listening to music on YouTube requires the app to be kept open and the screen active.
A radio mode is an example of a sustainability feature tech companies could implement to reduce digital waste, says researcher Daniel Schien.
Other features could include the option to disable videos from autoplaying, or not letting podcasts download new episodes if there is an unplayed backlog, says Chris Priest.
“It’s down to the companies to design these services so that they can be delivered efficiently to the whole planet,” he says.
The team’s estimates were based on public data from YouTube, as well as Netflix data centres energy figures, which the team believes are similar in efficiency to YouTube’s networks.
They estimated the proportion of viewers watching on different devices, such as smartphones and computers, based on user figures provided by the BBC.
The research will be presented on Thursday at the conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems in Glasgow. New Scientist has asked YouTube for comment, but has yet to get a response.
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