Chris Johnson, Sustainable Event Consultant, Chair of Vision: 2025 and Co-founder of Shambala Festival considers how the rapid rise of streaming events online in response to Covid-19 has brought the digital environmental footprint for the live events industry into sharper focus.
In this blog he covers: What exactly is a digital footprint? How significant is it really? How does a physical event compare to a digital event? Should we be concerned about the footprint of online events, and if so, how can we reduce it?
What exactly is a digital footprint?
Our digital environmental footprint is largely the emissions from energy consumed to power the Internet and the devises we use to get online. The impacts of making and disposing of these devices, i.e. ‘e-waste’ is also a significant.
Websites, social media profiles, online music and video streaming, this article you are reading (the online version), using the cloud to store data, all use energy, and lots of it.
The World Wide Web is made up of a network of data storage centres, which are responsible for about 2 percent of the world’s total greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. The exponential growth of Internet use and streaming media is increasing demand. Emerging technologies, such as machine learning, blockchain, 5G, and virtual reality, are further accelerating demand.
How does a digital event compare to a physical event?
The current UK benchmark for onsite GHG emissions per person per day (pppd) at a typical greenfield summer camping event is 1.9kg, or 79g per hour as an hourly average. If we compare this to published research about streaming Netflix (as an example) at 56-114g per hour (range depending on the energy mix of the country), it shows that online events could actually have a similar footprint to real events, at least on an hourly average basis.
However, it’s just not that simple, of course. If an audience member of an online event is on a green electricity tariff at home, and doesn’t replace their phone with every new model, their footprint could be considerably lower than attending a typical physical event per hour at the event. Conversely, the UK benchmarks for physical event emissions are based on typical diesel consumption, and so if an event is running on renewable energy, the footprint could be lower at the event than a digital user at home with a regular energy tariff.
Audience travel is typically around 80% of an event’s overall footprint. If we include audience travel in comparisons, it gets even more difficult to compare ‘typical’ footprints – travel mode and distance varies considerably between events i.e. a city event with a high percentage of people walking or using public transport versus a rural event that can only be accessed by car. However, we can pretty much assume, that when including travel, the majority, not necessarily all, physical events are responsible for significantly more emissions than digital.
Let’s create a fictional scenario to compare the total emissions of a physical versus online event: Our event, ‘REALFIELDS’, is an 8-hour greenfield show with 10,000 capacity. Everyone travels a 50 mile round trip in medium sized car with 2 people. Based on Julie’s Bicycle industry benchmarks for camping events, and DEFRA vehicle emissions data, this event would typically generate a total operational (i.e. onsite) footprint of 6.32 tonnes of CO2e. Travel would generate 69.75 tonnes CO2e, resulting in a total footprint of 76 tonnes CO2e. Based on Netflix streaming data and averaged global energy mix, 10,000 people watching an online event would generate 6.8 tonnes CO2e, roughly ten times less than the real event.
There is a great deal more that needs to be considered that would affect a detailed and robust comparison of digital vs. physical events; the scale of events, actual distances travelled to events, the number of days attended (this affects the share of transport emissions per day and hour), the type of devices used, the footprint of the production that is being streamed, the number of people watching each device etc.
Should we be concerned about the footprint of online?
Online activity now accounts for the same global emissions as all transport combined. As an example, Dublin’s industry of vast data centres – through which the UK and continental Europe accesses a much of our email, social media, online shopping, Netflix and other Internet services – is considered by some to single-handedly jeopardise Ireland’s ability to meet climate obligations under the Paris agreement, due to the energy consumption. Many of the companies responsible for datacentres such as Apple, Google and Facebook have publicly committed to becoming net zero in energy emissions, and are credited with stimulating investment in significant renewable energy projects such as offshore wind to achieve this, and data centres are rapidly increasing in efficiency, all helping to improve the global picture.
But how do we get a sense of scale and how this relates to music and online events? One example is the music video Despacito. When it reached 5bn streamed YouTube views in 2018, the energy consumption was equivalent to powering 40,000 US homes a for a year. K-Pop group BTS entered the Guinness Book of Records with their Bang Bang Con show, for the most simultaneous viewers ever at 756,000, and 50m viewers over the weekend. This may not help to make digital footprint feel clear, but for me it really brings home the huge change in landscape that the Internet has facilitated, the journey we have been on from local village pub sing-a-long to global digital. When we consider digital footprint, the question isn’t just, ‘How does it compare to other types of entertainment?’ but also, ‘What is the actual real impact?’ considering the scale of use. In the case of the digital revolution, there is a significantly increased impact due to scale even if it can be considered low impact per user or experience.
Whatever the scale and figures, it’s helpful to remember that we are essentially talking about the energy mix of a company or country, and how much fossil fuel is involved. Encouragingly, the emissions intensity of electricity in the UK fell by nearly 60% between 2008 and 2018, and in 2020 we have experienced the longest coal-free period since the national grid was created in 1935.
How can we reduce our digital event footprint?
I often consider that the environmental actions we can take as event organisers fall into three broad areas:
1. That which we can control directly, for example our energy use and purchasing.
2. That which we can influence directly, for example audience travel choices.
3. That which we can hope to influence – using our voice in the world to inspire changes that may not relate directly to the event experience.
Thinking about what we can directly influence, the first step with tackling most impacts is measurement, or assessment of some type, to gain an understanding of the impact and benchmark a start-point to monitor progress. However it is a complex endeavour to measure an events’ digital footprint accurately in terms of boundaries and responsibilities. What devices our audiences watch content on, and how it is powered makes up a significant part of the digital footprint. Much like audience travel, this is out of our immediate control, but we can support our audiences and digital visitors to make better-informed decisions. However, there are a number of specific actions a company can take:
1. Opt for e-tickets – a comparative life cycle analysis study of GHG emissions for paper vs. e-tickets by WeGotTickets (2013) found that e-tickets reduce the emissions footprint by a factor of 1000%. If you are still sending out physical tickets by post, this is an easy win.
2. Choose a website server provider that is run on renewable energy.
3. Create a low-bit rate website to reduce data transfer, like the GEX project website.
4. Use Greenpeace’s Click Clean Scorecard website to check your digital platforms performance (all major online platform types), and choose services that offer transparency and good energy performance where possible.
5. Check annually whether your company is storing data that is not required – every gigabyte of data stored is consuming energy.
6. Consider a combination of offline and online data storage to reduce cloud usage
7. Consider offering Download rather than streaming services for offline listening to cut down on the energy it takes to get a song from the cloud to your ears – for cases where repeated listening is anticipated.
8. File resolution matters: Are there opportunities to reduce streaming bit rates without sacrificing quality.
9. Ensure you have a policy of disposing of e-waste responsibly, and only replacing equipment when you need.
10. Work out your digital carbon footprint (ideally as part of your overall footprint) and balance unavoidable emissions with responsible climate investments.
In January 2020, DIMPACT, a collaboration between computer scientists at the University of Bristol and nine major media companies including ITV and BBC, was announced to help the media industry understand and manage the significant carbon impacts of digital content. As a sector with an increasing online focus, the live events industry would also benefit from a better understanding of how to measure, report and reduce our digital footprint. What we do know is that online streaming is on the rise, and it has a significant impact, albeit lower than a typical physical event.
Whilst it’s currently tricky to work out an event’s exact digital footprint it’s now something that many forward-thinking companies are including in their sustainability strategies. A good first step and the most effective action is to move to renewable energy, and like with all environmental impacts, starting conversations with stakeholders really counts.
 Julies Bicycle Benchmark for CO2e pppd for outdoor summer camping festival events, 2020
 Source UK GOV Department for Business, Energy & Industrial Strategy: https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/greenhouse-gas-reporting-conversion-factors-2019
This blog originally appeared in our August 2020 newsletter. Sign up receive monthly event sustainability news, case studies and guest blogs direct to your inbox using the form below.