Entertain to sustain: Netflix and the power of climate storytelling

Climate science tells us what to do. But in order to make us want to do it, something else is often needed – good storytelling.
During a keynote speech at Nature in The Race To Zero, Netflix Sustainability Officer Emma Stewart talked about the success of Don’t Look Up, the audiences’ appetite for climate-related content, and how Netflix is now using nature-based solutions to reach its climate goals.

On Earth Day, April 22, 2022. Emma Stewart delivered a keynote and took part in a panel discussion at the Exponential Climate Action Summit Broadcast V, organized by We Don’t Have Time in partnership with Terraformation, Exponential Roadmap, Earth4All, Ericsson, and Earth Day Network.
The broadcast reached 13 million viewers worldwide, and featured keynotes and panel discussions with 55 speakers from four continents, providing inspiration, knowledge, and a wide array of nature-based solutions to help mitigate the climate crisis.

The movie Don't Look Up has broken numerous viewer records.
The movie Don't Look Up has broken numerous viewer records.

Research led by The Nature Conservancy and 15 other institutions, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, shows that nature-based solutions can provide up to 37% of the emission reductions needed by 2030 to keep global temperature increases under 2°C. But, as has been proven repeatedly, stats and figures alone won't do the trick. In her keynote, Emma Stewart quoted the scientist Peter Kareiva by saying “science tells us what to do, while storytelling makes us want to do it.”
Storytelling can compellingly communicate these facts, allowing them to be visualized and connected to a possible future. Stories are an effective narrative device because they trigger memories, emotions, and critical thinking areas of the brain. Therefore, stories provide a powerful way to engage, inspire, and imagine.
A Netflix story that really managed to create engagement was last year’s Don’t Look Up, featuring Hollywood stars Leonardo DiCaprio and Jennifer Lawrence. The movie sparked a massive conversation that ignited the press and the media around this satirical but cautionary tale about climate action.

Emma Stewart, Netflix's first Sustainability Officer.
Emma Stewart, Netflix's first Sustainability Officer.

”The film broke multiple records for viewership, it became the second most-watched film in Netflix history and the first comedy to hit the top 10 in over 90 countries”, said Emma Stewart in her keynote.
Scientists described the film as being cathartic, because of how accurately it portrayed their frustration when trying to educate people about the seriousness of the climate crisis. Around the world, the climate movement soon embraced the slogan “Just look up”.
”We have found that audiences want to see sustainability on screen. Our analysis showed that in 2020 alone 160 million households around the world chose to watch at least one story on Netflix that helped the viewers better understand the issues, and highlight hopeful solutions around sustainability”, said Emma Stewart.
As Netflix has continued producing sustainability- and climate-related content, a very different title piqued the interest of policymakers around the world last year with Dr. Johan Rockström and Owen Gaffney together with David Attenborough launched the documentary ‘Breaking Boundaries’. It outlined the carbon law among other planetary thresholds that they’re on the cusp of surpassing.
Breaking Boundaries follows the scientific journey of world-renowned scientist Professor Johan Rockström. It tells the story of the most important scientific discovery of our time - that humanity has pushed Earth beyond the boundaries that have kept our planet stable for 10,000 years, since the dawn of civilization.
“President Joe Biden chose to share this documentary with 40 heads of state at his leader’s summit on climate”, said Emma Stewart.
Last month, on April 13th, Netflix launched a series called ‘Our Great National Parks’, in which former US President Barack Obama presents some of the world's most breathtaking national parks and protected areas, seen through the eyes of its wildest residents. Together with the filmmakers and several NGOs, Netflix has created, which supports audiences who want to then protect these wild places, including making their voices heard for 30 by 30. The goal in many countries now is to protect at least 30% of terrestrial habitats by the year 2030.
Streaming services are associated with high energy consumption and carbon emissions from network infrastructure and data centers. Netflix's carbon footprint in 2020 was roughly 1 million metric tons, and the company has now committed to reducing its emissions in alignment with the Paris Agreement’s goal to limit global warming to 1.5°C. This includes reducing internal emissions by 45% by 2030, based on the Science-Based Targets Initiative Guidance.
“What we have done operationally is committed to something we call Net Zero plus nature. This is a combination of a science-driven internal carbon reduction target, plus the power of nature to stabilize climate”, says Emma Stewart. ”In other words, we've put our internal emissions reductions on a third-party verified 1.5 degree Celsius pathway. And we've also invested in external projects around the world that retain and remove carbon from the atmosphere”, said Emma Stewart.
According to Netflix, the combination of Science-driven carbon reductions plus the power of nature will help the company to achieve net-zero greenhouse gas emissions already by the end of 2022.

About Emma Stweart
  • Emma Stewart, Ph.D., is Netflix’s first Sustainability Officer.
  • In collaboration with teams from across the company, she seeks to bring Netflix's carbon footprint to net zero, raise awareness through film and television content, and engage the company’s hundreds of millions of members on climate & environmental change.
  • Emma's work has been cited in The Economist, The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, and others.
  • Emma was declared a "Badass Woman in Sustainability" by GreenBiz, rated a "top 3 speaker" by The Economist Summits in 2015, “one of the most powerful women under 45” and an “urban pioneer” by FORTUNE Magazine, a “sustainability insurgent” by MIT Sloan Management Review, and one of the “Top 10 Women in Sustainability” by American Builders.

  • Sarah Chabane

    107 w

    Nice article, I really liked Netflix insights during the Earth Day event!

    • Christina Carlmark

      107 w

      Story telling is so important in the race to zero.

      • Patrick Kiash

        107 w

        Great points!

        • Marine Stephan

          107 w

          Very interesting story! What concrete actions is Netflix doing to reach its target?

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