Are young YouTube viewers a threat to the environment?

November 21, 2018

Our recent year 10 work experience student, Isaac, produced this fantastic piece of analysis, we thought it was worth sharing.

It probably isn’t surprising to hear that, in the UK, young people spend a huge amount of time watching YouTube videos. Users aged 12 to 17, for instance watch on average 915 hours of YouTube each year. Given that a year only has 8760 hours, 12 to 17-year olds spend just over 10% of their time watching YouTube.  This means that they watch around 30% more YouTube a day than TV.

Combine this with the fact that they have a significantly smaller population size, when compared to the other age groups, and young people are well over-represented in terms of number of videos viewed and length of. All this YouTube watching adds up in Carbon emissions. According to Google, 10 minutes of watching YouTube equals 1g of CO2 emissions (Unknown, Google discloses carbon footprint for the first time, 2011). The carbon emissions of those aged between the ages of 12 and 24 accounts for just over 50% of the UK population’s net CO2 emissions released by YouTube viewership, even though the account for less than 20% of YouTube viewers.

Age Group Population (million) YouTube Users (millions)
12-17 4.167 3.54195
18-24 5.65 5.424
25-40 13.1 12.052
40-55 13.4 11.524
55+ 19.35 12.5775

Figure 1. UK YouTube Users and Population by Age Group

Whilst young people appear to be watching an astronomically high amount of YouTube, and this appears to be outputting a huge amount of CO2 into the atmosphere, is it really that bad for the environment?

Watching TV emits 88g of CO2 per hour of viewing. If all YouTube users watched TV instead their net carbon emissions would be, 890934 tonnes higher per year. Many digital activities such as gaming and using streaming services are causing more CO2 emissions than watching YouTube, this is due to most people watching YouTube on a smaller phone screen.

It does not appear that watching YouTube is as bad for the environment as other digital activities, in fact it looks like a relatively harmless option. However, playing outside has an extremely low carbon footprint! Could this be an answer to reducing the CO2 consumption of young people? If every UK YouTube user under the age of 24, watched 1 less YouTube video a day, and instead went outside, and each year decreased the number of videos that they watched per day at a rate of 1 video per year (e.g. year 1 watched 1 less video per day, year 2 watched 2 less videos per day etc.). Then by 2063, it is predicted that UK YouTube carbon emissions would reach 40000 metric tonnes of CO2 a year, a saving of 25000 metric tonnes on the current figure.

Even though this would indeed be effective in significantly reducing young people’s social media related carbon emissions, it is very difficult to think of an effective, enforceable policy which would cause young people to watch less YouTube videos, it would be a logistical nightmare!

Sources:

https://merchdope.com/youtube-stats/

https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2011/sep/08/google-carbon-footprint