Royal Society: Avoid unnecessary HD streaming to cut carbon emissions

Stream video in standard definition rather than 4K, use the same smartphone for four YEARS and recycle old gadgets to cut carbon emissions, urges Royal Society report

  • Watching standard definition instead of HD online can reduce carbon emissions
  • New Royal Society report also advises people to use a smartphone for four years 
  • Getting a device repaired and giving old devices away are also greener options
  • Report is hopeful that digital technology can help meet net zero emissions target

The Royal Society is advising people to stream video in standard definition on their smartphone rather than 4K to help reduce carbon emissions.

In a new report, the Society estimates that streaming one hour on a smartphone generates roughly eight times more emissions in 4K or UHD (Ultra High Definition) compared with SD (Standard Definition). 

Content lovers are unlikely to notice the difference in definition on a screen as small as a smartphone, according to the report. 

Streaming services have a negative effect on the environment, due to the power required to transfer data, a large proportion of which is generated by non-renewable energy sources like gas and coal.  

The Royal Society also advises the public to keep using the same smartphone for four years and not get drawn into the tech industry’s furious annual release cycles.

Tech fans can also help cut carbon emissions by buying gadgets second-hand and recycling them when they reach their end-of-life.  

Opting for standard definition instead of higher quality videos online could help users reduce their carbon emissions, a report from the Royal Society says

HD video means a surge in bit rate – which corresponds to video quality when streaming videos.

The higher the bit rate, the better the video quality, while a lower bit rate has a weaker quality.  

‘Digital videos come in very large file sizes and are getting bigger with each new generation of higher definition video,’ Gary Cook of Greenpeace previously said.

‘More data equals more energy needed to maintain a system that is ready to stream this video to your device at a moment’s notice,’ he told AFP. 

More energy equals more power generated by carbon-belching non-renewable energy sources like gas and coal, as well as some renewable sources like solar.  

The world’s oldest independent scientific academy says digital technology’s estimated contribution to global carbon emissions range from 1.4 per cent to 5.9 per cent.

But it’s hopeful that digital technology, from smart meters to supercomputers and AI, could deliver nearly one third of the 50 per cent carbon emission reduction required by 2030. 

Humanity needs to achieve a 50 per cent reduction in emissions by 2030 in order to keep on a pathway to keep the global average temperature increase well below 3.6°F (2°C), as per the target of the Paris Agreement.   

‘There are many routes to net zero, but digital technology has a central role to play, no matter what sector or country you look at,’ said Professor Andy Hopper, vice president of the Royal Society and chairman of the report’s working group. 

An inadvertent benefit of the Covid-19 pandemic this year is employees have been made to work at home, causing a reduction in travel and contributing to a sharp drop in carbon emissions during lockdown. 

Digital technologies like internet and videoconferencing have bolstered workers’ ability to go from working in the office to working from home – and have great potential for a carbon-free future.  

‘This pandemic has accelerated the digital transition, so now is the time to take stock and ensure the sustainable development of future digital technologies and systems,’ said Professor Hopper.

4K video streaming generates around eight times more emissions compared to standard definition 

‘Transparent technology can benefit consumers, the technology sector and the planet. 

‘This report shows how addressing barriers to innovation and harnessing the potential of our technology can make a sustainable net-zero future a reality.’

Decisions on limiting streaming resolution should ultimately be taken by platforms and regulators, the report stresses. 

For example, YouTube could help limit emissions from video streaming by letting users switch off the video when they are only listening to the content.

A study from last year showed this could save between 1 per cent and 5 per cent of the service’s total emissions, a reduction comparable to what is achieved with running YouTube’s servers on renewable energy. 

Responsible streaming would be supported by changes in online services design, such as turning off the video for a large portion of YouTube users who are only listening to content and not watching it

The new Royal Society report also highlights that using phones, laptops, tablets and smart TVs for longer can reduce emissions.

Tech giants such as Apple, Samsung and Huawei are furiously competing to offer the latest advancements in smartphone photography and life-like displays.  

Currently, people tend to change their mobile phones once every two years, partly motivated by phone contracts ‘that offer the newest models at advantageous costs’, the report says. 

But this means devices tend to be replaced by an updated model even when they’re still usable, fuelling ‘throwaway culture’ and building e-waste piles.  

The Royal Society says keeping a phone for four years by protecting and repairing them if and when needed can help device owners do their bit for the environment. 

Getting a phone or other device second-hand, passing it on and sharing equipment such as chargers are other ways to reduce the share of emissions associated with devices.

Failing that, tech fans can recycle gadgets left lying around in a drawer at home, as ‘this amounts to a form of landfill’, the report says.

According to a 2019 commissioned by the Royal Society of Chemistry, 51 per cent of UK households have at least one unused electronic device and and 45 per cent have up to five. 

Piles of mobile phones that still work but have been replaced by more recent models should be gifted to those in need of one, the report suggests 

Once in landfill, discarded electronic devices are sometimes burnt to dispose of them, releasing carbon dioxide and toxic chemicals into the air, damaging the atmosphere. 

Although refurbishing or re-purposing a device should be considered first, recycling old devices so plants can responsibly extract their high-value materials, rather than burning them, is the next best option.

The Recycle Your Electricals campaign can help locate nearest recycling points throughout the UK. 

Elsewhere in the report, the Royal Society says governments should ensure tech companies share publicly data about their carbon emissions, in particular from data centres. 

‘If more people are confident in moving their computing on to the cloud, energy savings are possible using more efficient data centres,’ said Professor Hopper. 

The UK government should also use its net zero target for 2050 to drive momentum behind the provision of data access, digital infrastructure and skills. 


A target set by the government in June 2019 will require the UK to bring all greenhouse gas emissions to net zero by 2050. 

Former Prime Minister Theresa May had announced the target, saying the plans were ambitious but crucial for protecting the planet for future generations.

The move will require huge changes such as more renewable electricity generation, phasing out new petrol and diesel cars by at least 2035 and a 20 per cent cut in beef and lamb consumption. 

‘The UK kick-started the Industrial Revolution, which was responsible for economic growth across the globe but also for increasing emissions,’ said said Energy and Clean Growth Minister Chris Skidmore at the time.

‘We’re leading the world yet again in becoming the first major economy to pass new laws to reduce emissions to net zero by 2050 while remaining committed to growing the economy – putting clean growth at the heart of our modern Industrial Strategy.’    

Net zero means any emissions would be balanced by schemes to offset an equivalent amount of greenhouse gases from the atmosphere, such as planting trees or using technology like carbon capture and storage.


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