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Streaming in the Just Transition

A Producer’s Guide to Measuring, Budgeting, and Lowering the Carbon Emissions of Livestreams and Video Conferences

Some of the most important questions right now, for any of us working within institutions in the Global North that support or present the performing arts, are: How will the performing arts field contribute to climate justice during the sixth mass extinction? How will our work play a role in a “just transition”?

The Just Transition framework, as defined by the Climate Justice Alliance, is a “vision-led, unifying and place-based set of principles, processes, and practices that build economic and political power to shift from an extractive economy to a regenerative economy.” It seeks to dismantle intersecting systems of oppression by providing alternative social and cultural paradigms and inclusive visions for thriving and well-being. It also seeks to heal the damage that capitalism, colonialism, racism, and patriarchy have inflicted on all of us and our biosphere.

This approach to collective visioning acknowledges that uncontrolled collapses of our economies and ecological systems are currently taking place, and it also acknowledges the grief-filled reality that things will continue to worsen. On top of this, the approach recognizes that a salient feature of our current exploitative paradigm is that the most marginalized people and least responsible for our crises are often the first to be victimized. The most recent global example is the irrational COVID-19 vaccine hoarding in the Global North and its unconscionable inequitable distribution to the Global South; many people in the Global South have zero chance of receiving the vaccine this year or next.

In 2015’s Paris Agreement, the world’s nations pledged to keep global warming to 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels by greatly reducing greenhouse gas emissions (1.5°C is already catastrophic and genocidal). In order to keep on track for this goal, total global emissions needed to be reduced by 50 percent by 2030. Now, in 2021, we are actually accelerating in the opposite direction of progress and are currently on track to heat up 3°C this century and likely much more, which effectively makes Earth nearly uninhabitable for all humans.

Grass growing out of an old laptop computer.

Image by Nathaniel Stern. CC BY-NC-SA.

Can the Performing Arts Decarbonize Quickly in Order to Embody a New Story of Inclusion and Relevance?

Focusing on reducing carbon emissions is only one technical aspect of a just transition, and carbon emissions are just one aspect of our human-made environmental catastrophe, which has been caused by systems of oppression. As arts workers, we need to quickly develop conscientiousness about our energy usage and carbon footprint. We can do this through simple measuring and budgeting in order to have a more ethically aligned understanding of the costs of producing and consuming our arts programming in our current paradigm.

This awareness, once introduced and practiced, is a way to focus our values-informed priorities on the work going forward. It is true that our field’s carbon emissions are very small relative to other sectors, however we have the possibility to have an outsized impact by embodying new stories and values. We can lead by example, influence social change, and create possibilities for new paths.

Some nations and local governments have pledged to have nearly zero carbon emissions by 2030. B Corps have committed to becoming nearly zero in carbon emissions by 2030. These pledges are a vast improvement from the noncommittal and ecocidal 2050 deadline that many other nations and municipalities have pledged, however they all fall short of what the science demands, and some fall short in terms of dismantling systems of oppression that a just transition asks for. The science demands that we turn off all carbon emissions today, especially historically high-emitting nations, if we want a less hostile environment. In terms of collective action, the performing arts could join and push the needle on these efforts and pledge to become nearly zero by 2025 or even sooner, which would be aligned with what the science says is necessary.

How will the performing arts field contribute to climate justice during the sixth mass extinction? How will our work play a role in a “just transition”?

Will We Go Back to Air Travel Post-Pandemic?

In terms of the tools at the disposal of arts presenters, producers, and funders—air travel is by far the most carbon-emitting practice that our field engages in and that we can have immediate control over in terms of divesting from. (For organizations that have buildings, the next highest carbon-emitting activities are likely electricity usage for heating, cooling, and lighting.) Like all industries that don’t have a post-carbon future, the aviation industry can’t help but seek its own growth until it can’t anymore despite full knowledge of the irreparable damage, and despite its deceitful public relations rhetoric of “tackling climate change.” Unlike land-based travel like trains, buses, and cars, there are no low-carbon emission alternatives for air travel.

The COVID-19 pandemic created an uncontrolled collapse of our field’s use of air travel for its programming of touring artistic productions and professional conferences. This collapse devastated artists’ and organizations’ incomes and livelihoods. People are hurt by this and many will never recover. A controlled collapse of our dependence on air travel would have looked much different if we had the opportunity to coordinate within the field to figure out how to transition out of air travel through a justice framework. Despite this, just transition work can still be done now and should be one of our priorities going forward.

Is Streaming the Answer?

As organizations turned to video conferencing and live video streaming in a quick adaptation of programming, many positive outcomes emerged. A number of people who did not have access to performance and conversations for a variety of economic and social reasons suddenly had increased opportunity. Many of the oppressive power dynamics of elite, exclusive in-person gatherings and events took on more democratic characteristics through video conferencing and livestreaming. Many more exchanges and conversations between artists in the Global North and the Global South were able to occur as the notion of geographic borders got challenged because of the immediacy of video streaming and conferencing.

For a two-day professional conference that I attended by video conferencing in December 2020, I calculated that my eight hours of being in the video conference produced 3.42 kg (7.5 lbs) of carbon dioxide emissions, compared to my in-person attendance at the same conference the year earlier when I travelled by plane and produced 143 kg (315 lbs) of carbon dioxide emissions. (See the next section for how this was calculated.)

As you see, streaming has a very significant difference in emissions. However, there is also a deceptively real environmental cost to production and consumption of internet media. The energy and physical materials usage of the information and communications technology industries is on the typical, extractive, and ecocidal growth trajectory that we need to transition out of very quickly. My carbon emissions calculation above is looking at just one small segment of my overall environmental footprint: the electricity that was used to send and receive the video conference data. What is not included is the entire complex system full of scarce metals mined in conflict zones that have significant negative environmental and social impacts, the carbon footprint of shipping used by the gigantic supply chains that produce our devices, and all of the data centers and infrastructures that we never see.

Given this, making a complete estimate of your carbon footprint is very difficult, and the science measuring this has not reached consensus. Emissions figures should be considered as tools for building awareness around consumption.

The ethos of our communications technology, as influenced by the handful of oligarchic corporations that run the commercial internet and have trapped our attention and shaped our behavior, is: “More is more”—our devices are designed to be trashed and data is just meant to endlessly accumulate. There is nothing “green” nor “sustainable” about these technologies and the economic system in which they exist.

Streaming in a frugal and conscientious manner may be the answer as a temporary transition tool for a couple of years to give ourselves the opportunity as a global performing arts field to come together to think and plan our next steps for the future. However, access to inexpensive streaming and broadband internet is not at all equitable. If I didn’t have the luxury of having a so-called “unlimited” internet broadband connection in my home, and if I was attending that same conference using a metered, or pay-as-you go, mobile data connection to the internet, I would have paid $32 USD. If I was connecting from another country where the price for mobile data is higher, or where the price relative to income is higher, participation may have been prohibitive. Part of a just transition for streaming would be to take into account the disparities of people’s access to broadband and the financial costs of what many of us in high-emitting economic classes consider “free,” “always on,” and “unlimited.” The web as we know it today—always growing and always on—does not have a sustainable future.

There is also a deceptively real environmental cost to production and consumption of internet media.

How Can I Calculate My Carbon Emissions for Video and Audio Streaming?

For every gigabyte (GB) of data that someone consumes or produces by participating in a video conference, listening to a podcast, watching a livestream event, or streaming a video, we can estimate that activity is responsible for at least 855 g of carbon dioxide emissions (CO2).

The streaming media calculations in this article are based on the methodology and figures used by the Website Carbon Calculator, where an energy measurement (kilowatts per hour) gets assigned to the amount of data transferred through the internet. Given that much of the electricity produced worldwide is the result of burning fossil fuels, we can estimate the carbon intensity of electricity and then therefore calculate the carbon emissions of data transfer.

1 GB or 1000 megabytes (MB) = 855 g CO2

The key to calculating your total carbon dioxide emissions is figuring out the file size of the media that is being consumed or produced. (A synonym of “file size” in this context is total size of the data as measured in bytes that is transferred through the internet.) Once you have that, you can then do the calculation for CO2. Taking my conference attendance example again, I looked at my Zoom application’s statistics, and it was telling me that I was sending and receiving a total of 1200 kilobits per second (Kbps). Putting that data transfer figure into a video bitrate calculator and adding the amount of time I was in the conference (eight hours), I was then given the total “file size” or total data transfer size of 4 GB.

4 GB x 855 g CO2 = 3420 g (7.5 lbs) CO2

Taking another example: If I were producing a live video streaming event using livestream software such as OBS Studio and I chose to stream out at 2225 kilobits per second for a one-hour program (which would give me more than adequate quality), my total file size would be 1 GB, which equals 855 g (1.88 lbs) of carbon dioxide emissions. If one hundred people watched/consumed the entire live program at the same video bitrate that I was sending out at, the total audience carbon emissions would be 85.5 kg (188.5 lbs).

As you can see, for those of us spending a lot of our time in video conferences and watching videos, our emissions taken collectively can add up to a significant amount.

In terms of budgeting based on these general standards and general worldwide estimates, here are three examples:

  • 1 hour of high quality Zoom = 462 g (1 lb) CO2 per person per participant. (A 1200 Kbps data transfer rate for 1 hour equals 0.54 GB total file size, or the total data that was transferred. You need the video bitrate calculator to help determine your total file size or data that was transferred. 0.54 GB x 855 g = 426 g CO2.)
  • 1 hour of good quality live video streaming = 1026 g (2.7 lb) CO2 per person per participant. (A 2500 Kbps video data transfer + 160 Kbps audio data transfer for 1 hour equals 1.2 GB total file size, or the total data that was transferred. Use the video bitrate calculator to help you determine your total file size.)
  • 1 hour of podcast audio streaming/downloading = 47 g (0.10 lb) CO2 per person per audience member. (A 128 kbps audio transfer rate for 1 hour equals 55 MB (0.055 GB) file size or data that was transferred. Again, use the video bitrate calculator to determine your total file size).

When making a budget estimate for a project, or a budget for your organization’s programming, adding a column or row in your spreadsheets for CO2 estimates can be quite simple.

When livestreaming, there is no need to stream in “Full HD” (1920x1080), as regular HD 1280x720 is more than adequate for an event, even performance.

What Is an Acceptable Carbon Budget?

If we approach a budget as a “moral document” expressing one’s values, the question of “What is an acceptable carbon budget” situates us in a predicament, as the answer we all need this to be, given the consequences of propagating our status quo, business-as-usual arts programming, is zero.

Some organizations may find they want to establish their pre-pandemic baseline carbon emissions and then phase out more carbon-intensive activities such as air travel by a certain deadline, such as 2025, and progressively budget a tapering of their CO2 for each subsequent fiscal year. An internationally accepted carbon emissions calculator for air travel comes from the ICAO, which is a United Nations agency. For land-based categories of activity such as car, bus, rail, and building, carbonfootprint.com helps. For measuring your website, look to websitecarbon.com. And for your internet video and audio media streaming footprint, look to the measurements and guidelines I laid out above.

Organizations that do not use air travel and are just using livestreaming or conferencing during this pandemic period may want to consider progressively reducing the amount of video they are producing and consuming, as video in the online space is the most data-intensive media. Audio-only conferencing and communication is by far much less data/carbon intensive, followed by images, and then text. Text is the lightest media on the web.

In terms of the Just Transition framework for guiding the answer to the question of a carbon budget, consider who benefits and can be included in the choice of air travel, video conferencing, and live video stream. Who has been structurally excluded in your past programming? Video is an essential tool for centering and making space for Deaf artists and Deaf cultures, so maybe that helps inform your curation. Who has historically not had the mobility (economic, social, physical) to engage with your art experiences that a video livestream could help to mitigate? To me, this is where “using the master’s tools to dismantle the master’s house” actually makes sense. There is an inescapable environmental cost to online activity, but for the sake of access, this feels like a worthy trade-off.

Reducing Waste

While we are building our awareness of our consumption and production of online media, there are several things we can do to reduce our energy usage and carbon footprint.

  1. Resist the urge and messaging to buy any new equipment. It is quite possible to create high quality online media using computer equipment that is several years old. The embodied energy, or the cost to the environment that its manufacturing entailed, is quite significant for any device. Consider creating an equipment cooperative in your local geographic performing arts community to give new life to existing computer devices.
  2. Consider replacing your commercial software products and services with open-source software. “Zoom” has unfortunately become a genericization of “video conferencing.” Yes, it is a feature-rich product, however it uses more energy; is less private; is embargoed in places such as Cuba, Iran, Syria; and subscriptions cost money. An open-source (and no-cost) alternative is Jitsi Meet, which uses a web technology called WebRTC that creates a serverless connection between your web browser and your conference partners. There are fewer machines running, less electricity is being used, and it has no political borders.
  3. Apply an ad-blocking web browser extension, as displaying ads on webpages are responsible for a significant amount of energy/carbon emissions.
  4. Divest your organization’s effort, attention, and money away from commercial social media (Facebook, Instagram, Twitter) and from commercial search engines (Google). This is also a way to save energy as these are all advertisement-heavy platforms. There are many non-commercial and privacy-respecting alternatives in open-source software.
  5. When livestreaming, there is no need to stream in “Full HD” (1920x1080), as regular HD 1280x720 is more than adequate for an event, even performance. What is most important for a livestream’s quality is the video bitrate, and using a lower resolution like 1280x720 actually gives you better quality. Consider using 640x360 as your standard resolution, especially for conferences and panel discussions where the visuals are less important. It’s essential we get off the consumerist treadmill of ever-increasing resolutions.
  6. When video conferencing, decide when you actually need to show your video. Otherwise choose a good, expressive profile picture and do calls with audio-only. When using Jitsi Meet you can control your video bitrate—the lower the better for your energy usage and carbon footprint.

Besides Reducing One’s Organizational Carbon Footprint, What Are Other Ways to Engage in a Just Transition?

If based in the United States, consider supporting the Sunrise Movement, which is a highly effective political action campaign organization, and get to know the work of the Climate Justice Alliance. To support non-violent civil disobedience, join your local Extinction Rebellion network. Learn about digital land acknowledgements and find the United States Department of Arts and Culture (USDAC) #HonorNativeLand Virtual Acknowledgement Pack.

A just transition out of our extractive ways of creating and relating is something that we can all do together. I am looking forward to the values-infused conversations and the flourishing of creativity and new strategies that can be unleashed by approaching our predicament through a just framework. Let us know your thoughts and contact us if you want to contribute.

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