FIFA World Cup 2014 was one of the largest multimedia sporting events in history . In-person attendance was estimated at more than three and a half million while hundreds of millions of viewers tuned in via TV, Internet, and radio. Akamai's online traffic statistics estimate this year's event to be ten times larger than the 2010 World Cup in South Africa, and two and a half times larger than the Sochi Winter Olympics. In my role as Akamai's Senior Director of Environmental Sustainability I was curious about the carbon footprint of such a large event, and how digital and analog attendance compared.
Figure 1. Relative amount of traffic that was delivered for four major sporting events with global appeal. Source: Akamai Technologies.
Turns out, FIFA has a green side beyond it soccer fields. In a concerted effort to reduce the environmental impact of staging the World Cup it developed the 2014 FIFA World CupTM Sustainability Strategy. As part of that strategy FIFA calculated the carbon footprint of the six weeks-long tournament including construction and operations of the match stadiums and FIFA Fan Fest venues, and team and spectator travel and accommodations. It was estimated at 2.5 million metric tons CO2 equivalent. That's the equivalent of driving a U.S. car 7.4 billion miles or flying 9.2 billion miles, a fit analogy since international and inter-/intra-city transportation represented 84% of the 2.5 million.
Figure 2. 2014 FIFA World Cup GHG emissions by activity type. Source: Summary of the 2014 FIFA World Cup Brazil Carbon Footprint
Certainly there would be no World Cup without stadiums to play in and teams to compete. And it wouldn't be nearly as exhilarating without the frenzied fans cheering from the stands. But what is the carbon impact of bringing the World Cup to more than one hundred million online viewers around the world, tuning in using all manner of connected devices such as smart phones and tablets? Akamai supported live streaming for all 64 matches for more than 50 rights-holding customers reaching over 80 countries, providing us with unique insight into online activity. By tracking the fraction of our network used to stream the matches in each geographic region and overlaying the associated energy consumption and carbon emissions, we were able to estimate the carbon footprint of the server and data center component of online viewing at a lean 100 metric tons CO2 equivalent.
Achieving these impressive results for such a long-term and broadly viewed event is a testament to Akamai's commitment to reducing our operational impacts. As a result of our efforts to innovate around network productivity and efficiency, our absolute energy consumption and greenhouse gas emissions have decoupled from our network traffic growth, flattening even as our traffic continues to grow exponentially. Although, the digital story doesn't end here.
Figure 3. Plot of normalized absolute energy and GHG versus peak traffic from January Q1 2009 through Q2 2014. [Monthly data plotted here as quarterly average/sum.]
A recent study by researchers at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory and Northwestern University assessed that the server and data center portion of streaming represents only an astonishing 1% of the total energy and carbon footprint. The balance is attributed to end user last mile and devices, e.g., cable/DSL, modem, wireless router, tablet, computer and monitor, bringing the World Cup's total digital footprint to 100,000 metric tons CO2e. If we compare just the World Cup attendee portion of the footprint , accounting for travel and accommodations, digital spectatorship is about twenty times more carbon-efficient than being there. And, you get the added benefit of the best seat in the house for every match!
The news is good all around. The Internet, with Akamai's help, has broadened the accessibility of popular sporting events to people anywhere with Internet connectivity, on any device. Online viewing is much more carbon-efficient than attending in person. And with Akamai's high-definition anywhere on-any-device streaming, you can enjoy players-in-your-living-room-quality coverage every game.