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Does bingeing The Witcher or Stranger Things impact the environment? Scientists are close to finding out

By Nivea Serrao

Unlike The Witcher's Yennefer of Vengerberg who can effortlessly jump realms or Stranger Things' Eleven who occasionally takes trips to the Upside Down, humankind is pretty much stuck on Earth, which means managing our carbon footprint — and impact on global warming — is of utmost importance. 

So it's a good thing that the University of Bristol has developed DIMPACT, a new tool that helps streaming platforms calculate their impact on the environment. According to WIRED, the tool, which just completed a 12-month pilot phase, was built to help digital media companies both map and manage their carbon footprints. 

DIMPACT gathers its results using four created modules, each of which represents a different sector: video streaming, advertising, publishing, and business intelligence. The aim is to also include modules for gaming and music streaming next. In Netflix's case, it's the video streaming module that is crucial as it examines all the processes that make streaming each of its many movies and series possible and allows the company to measure its own carbon footprint, as well as produce detailed information about the pollution caused by a company's suppliers and customers, otherwise known as Scope 3 emissions. Having this information is the first step in a company being able to set a scientifically-informed target as part of its aim for an overall reduction. 

But what does this have to do with marathoning the future of adventures of Geralt of Rivia and the Scoops Troop the very day they're released? 

Well, in 2020 Netflix claimed that one hour of streaming produced less than 100gCO2e (a hundred grams of carbon dioxide equivalent), which is less than driving an average car a quarter of a mile. However, thanks to DIMPACT, the global streaming giant has been able to work out that one hour of streaming is equivalent to a 75W ceiling fan running for four hours in North America, or even a 1000W window air conditioner running for 15 minutes. (The European equivalent is six hours of fan use and 40 minutes of AC use.) 

"My first impression about that claim is that it seems reasonable," Bernardi Pranggono, a senior lecturer in computer network engineering at Sheffield Hallam University told WIRED. However as he goes on to explain, it's not as simple, because streaming is comparative. Binging an episode of The Witcher might be more environmentally friendly than driving 30 minutes to the nearest movie theater (if they're open for business again), but it's not greener than gardening or simply going for a walk. 

So don't celebrate — or fire up that Netflix queue in celebration — just yet. The Carbon Trust, an independent organization founded in the U.K. to help businesses worldwide cut their carbon emissions, will be releasing a white paper at the end of March confirming its findings in regards to this.

And this is yet another reason why the development of DIMPACT is proving so significant, having already been adopted by the BBC as well as other U.K.-based companies that stream content. There have been flawed assumptions made in recent years some of which produced figures that are wildly exaggerated. DIMPACT could possibly help counter all that while also providing a viable path for big streaming platforms to follow as they try to reduce their environmental impact. 

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