Simple Design Changes Could Make YouTube Better for the Planet, Researchers Say

I don’t, but my niece definitely does.
Photo: AP

YouTube is where preschoolers go for their Baby Shark fix. It’s where beauty bloggers rejoice as they unbox their new favorite lipstick. As it turns out, the website—my 3-year-old niece’s one and only true love—also contributes to climate change in a fairly significant way.

YouTube emitted an estimated 11 million tons of carbon dioxide in 2016, according to scientists at the University of Bristol who are presenting their research Thursday at the Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems. That’s greater than Amsterdam’s annual footprint. The good news, the researchers say, is that simple design changes could help these services reduce this carbon footprint. In fact, YouTube could reduce its emissions by up to 551,000 tons, by simply allowing viewers to use the app with an inactive screen when, say, they’re streaming music.

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Giant tech companies like Google, which owns YouTube, emit greenhouse gases largely by running the servers that keep their websites up. (Google does, however, buys carbon offsets to match their energy use.) But there are also the networks users rely on to provide their mobile devices with the internet their YouTube videos use to stream videos. More than half of YouTube’s videos are watched on people’s phones, so even if Google made all of the data centers servicing the website run on renewable energy sources, a carbon footprint would still exist from these networks if they continue to run on fossil fuels.

“These principles, they apply to all digital services,” Daniel Schien, a computer science professor at the University of Bristol, told Earther.

But there’s a simple way for YouTube to slim its carbon footprint down. Those of us who aren’t down to splurge on Spotify or Apple Music subscriptions still rely on YouTube for our music needs. And while you currently need a YouTube Premium subscription to enable the “background play” feature, those relying on the free service to stream music need to make sure the app is open and their screen remains active. YouTube could make background play free for all who stream music on it.

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Schien and his colleague Chris Preist, a sustainability and computer systems professor at the university, came to this conclusion after creating a model that represents the delivery service that brings YouTube videos to users. It includes the service (in this case, videos), the network, and the user. It’s based on user data that YouTube has made public, as well as behavioral data that researchers at the University of Lancaster have gathered. They put all these together to figure out how companies like Google can reduce their so-called digital waste.

“Digital waste, like other waste, is any service where resources have been consumed without receiving any benefit from that service,” Schien explained.

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YouTube could go even further by ending its autoplay feature. In order for a video to play, your phone must download its data first. And that requires energy from your cellular network. Still, a move like that might reduce the number of video views from YouTube’s more than a billion users that it relies on to make money.

The researchers aren’t proposing that companies like Google make changes that impact their bottom lines, though. In fact, they’re not trying to call out YouTube because they believe it’s doing a particularly bad job. What they are doing is offering examples. They’re sure many others exist.

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“What we’re saying is that designers of services, whether they be Google or the BBC, however, should take into account an understanding of the overall energy use of the service when they make these design decisions,” said Preist to Earther. “And our research provides tools which can help them do that

.”

Reducing the tech industry’s carbon footprint won’t save the world, of course, but if a company like Google went ahead and made such a change in the name of climate change, who’s to say others wouldn’t follow suit?

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Earther has reached to YouTube out for comment, and we’ll update if we hear back.

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About the author

Yessenia Funes

I mostly write about how environmental policy and climate change intersect with race and class though I occasionally write about animals, science, and art, too. We all need an escape, right?

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