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If Your Time is short
Comparing driving with Netflix streaming is difficult and depends largely on the car, driving speed and streaming device, among other factors.
This rumor has recently resurfaced as a screenshot of a tweet and a response. The original tweet, from @BigThink in 2019, has been deleted, and the article that it was promoting has been corrected to remove the error.
A better estimate of carbon emissions suggests driving 4 miles is equivalent to streaming about 45 hours of Netflix.
Don’t touch that dial — or rather, don’t exit that tab of Netflix — if you’re worried that streaming services are as bad for the environment as a short drive.
A popular screenshot of a tweet claims, "Your Netflix binge-watching is making climate change worse, say experts. The emissions generated by watching 30 minutes of Netflix is the same as driving almost 4 miles."
The tweet from @BigThink crossed over to Facebook, where it was flagged as part of Facebook’s efforts to combat false news and misinformation on its News Feed. (Read more about our partnership with Facebook.)
We wondered whether the comparison between driving a specific distance and watching Netflix for a specific amount of time checks out.
Broadly speaking, watching streaming services does impact climate change through energy use, data transfer, and the production of devices such as TVs and computers. But the comparison presented doesn’t add up.
The correction says the article originally "relied on data produced by the The Shift Project," which is a French think tank advocating a shift to a post-carbon economy. The article, which is about the carbon impact of streaming services, no longer contains any comparison between driving and Netflix.
According to its website, the specific claim about the half-hour of viewing came from an oral interview, quotes from which were published in AFP, a French cooperative news agency. The original statement on AFP was:
"Watching a half-hour show would lead to emissions of 1.6 kilograms of carbon dioxide equivalent, said Maxime Efoui-Hess of French think tank the Shift Project. That's equivalent to driving 3.9 miles (6.28 kilometers)."
The claim warped to include Netflix as it gained media traction. In response, the International Energy Agency published a fact-check in February 2020 by digital/energy analyst George Kamiya.
Finding the exact comparison between driving and Netflix is difficult, as all kinds of data fluctuate. As Kamiya wrote, watching on different devices and driving different cars affects the comparison. Even the year makes a difference, because energy efficiency for data transfer is growing rapidly, as is the efficiency of cars and the availability of electric cars. Driving at different speeds or using energy from different countries can influence these numbers, too.
That said, Kamiya came up with an estimate based on averages in 2019. He wrote that streaming a 30-minute show on Netflix in 2019 released around 18 grams of emissions.
According to a report published by the Environmental Protection Agency in March 2018, the average American passenger car emits 404 grams of carbon dioxide per mile. That means 4 miles of driving emits about 1,616 grams of CO2, which is about 90 times Kamiya’s estimate of the emissions of a 30-minute Netflix show. If you do a little more math, you’ll find that the estimated emissions of a 4-mile drive is around the same as 45 hours of video streaming in the U.S.
Kamiya described streaming as "a fairly low-emitting activity."
The Shift Project responded to Kamiya’s fact-check with this document in June 2020, stating that Kamiya was correct about the Netflix claim being wrong, and that some of the data in one of its earlier reports had been flawed. (Kamiya also challenged the results of the Shift Project’s newer report in a November 2020 update to his IEA article.)
The claim in the Facebook post said, "The emissions generated by watching 30 minutes of Netflix is the same as driving almost 4 miles."
The claim is attributed to The Shift Project, which describes it as an "error" that "appeared during an interview." Carbon emissions are complicated to gauge across different people who use different devices, drive different cars, get energy from different sources, and so on. However, an estimate from the International Energy Agency estimated that when this claim was made in 2019, 4 miles of driving had more similar carbon emissions to streaming 45 hours of Netflix.
We rate this comparison False.
Email interview with BigThink editor Alex Berezow, July 15, 2022
Screenshot posted on Facebook page Premium Internet Curation, July 5, 2022
Lex Croucher’s tweet response to Big Think, Jan. 5, 2020
Big Think’s original tweet link (now deleted)
BigThink: Online video streaming is making climate change worse, Oct. 30 2019
International Energy Agency: Fact-check: What is the carbon footprint of streaming video on Netflix? Feb. 25, 2020
The Shift Project: Did The Shift Project really overestimate the carbon footprint of online video? June 2020
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