Netflix set out goals today to limit the damage the company does to the climate. By the end of 2022, it wants to reach “net zero” greenhouse gas emissions. That means it plans to reduce some of its emissions and find ways to offset or capture the rest.
By 2030, Netflix says it plans to cut emissions from its operations and electricity use by 45 percent. That goal roughly lines up with research from leading climate scientists, who have found that greenhouse gas emissions need to fall by about 45 percent globally this decade. But Netflix will eventually need to ramp up efforts to prevent pollution generated by producing and streaming its movies and TV shows.
A strategy with a checkered history
To meet its deadline next year, the company is primarily relying on offsetting its emissions, a strategy with a checkered history when it comes to how well it actually slows down climate change. Netflix plans to invest in programs dedicated to preserving and restoring ecosystems that naturally store planet-heating carbon dioxide. Efforts to cancel out companies’ carbon footprints by planting trees and preserving forests have failed to substantially reduce greenhouse gas emissions in the past. Netflix, however, says that it has developed a thorough process to vet these kinds of projects, which might include visiting the sites in person or monitoring their progress via satellite. But many environmental advocates have pressured companies to do more to stop polluting in the first place, rather than relying on trees to clean up the mess.
Netflix disclosed its annual carbon footprint for the first time today in an environmental social governance report. That revealed that the company generated roughly 1.1 million metric tons of CO2 last year, equivalent to the yearly emissions from about 240,000 passenger cars. That total still doesn’t account for emissions that come from the internet infrastructure needed to stream its shows, or from the devices people use to watch its content.
Netflix did pollute a little less in 2020 than it did in 2019, but probably not by design. Production for a lot of Netflix content was delayed last year because of the pandemic, which the company said was the main reason for the 14 percent drop in emissions last year.
Before the pandemic, Netflix’s energy use skyrocketed
The year before the pandemic, Netflix’s energy use actually skyrocketed. It used 84 percent more electricity in 2019 compared to the year before. (Its subscriber base grew 20 percent over the same time period.) Netflix attributed much of that rise to the company self-producing more of its own films and TV shows.
The physical production of Netflix’s branded content was responsible for half of its entire carbon footprint in 2020. Corporate operations and purchased goods made up another 45 percent of emissions, while data centers made up 5 percent.
To cut down its planet-heating pollution moving forward, Netflix says it will replace fossil fuels with renewable energy as much as possible. When it comes to filming around the globe, the company said it plans to hire more local crews to avoid pollution from travel. It also wants to make its operations more efficient so that it can cut down on how much energy it uses in the first place. It has the most control over that at its own studios, but the company says it will also try to influence vendors and data center providers with whom it works. One small change the company has already made is the switch from incandescent to vastly more efficient LED lighting in many of its studios. Not only do LED lights use up less energy, but they also reduce cooling costs because they’re not as hot as traditional bulbs.
“The film industry needs a leader when it comes to climate action.”
“The talent loves it because it doesn’t melt their makeup in the same way that incandescent bulbs did, so it’s a win-win-win,” says Emma Stewart, who was hired last year to become Netflix’s first sustainability officer.
Even incremental changes could eventually add up to big wins for the planet. “The film industry needs a leader when it comes to climate action. Changing the world begins with one company stepping up and inspiring others to join them. I’m thrilled at how Netflix is taking on this leadership role,” Katharine Hayhoe, a climate scientist at Texas Tech University, said in a statement on Netflix’s new sustainability goals.