Avoid unnecessary HD streaming to cut carbon emissions, report recommends

Opting for standard definition instead of higher quality videos online could help users reduce their carbon emissions, a report into digital technology has said.

Streaming a video in 4K for an hour from a smartphone generates around eight times more emissions than an SD (standard definition) version, the Royal Society said.

Some people will not see any difference when “streaming responsibly” because of the smaller screen, it added.

Authors of the Digital Technology And The Planet paper said it is down to platforms and regulators to decide on limiting streaming resolutions.

It suggested video should be switched off on sites such as YouTube if the user is only listening to content, which could trim up to 5% off of the platform’s total emissions.

The advice is among a string of actions individuals are urged to make, with estimates that digital technology contributes between 1.4% and 5.9% to global emissions.

Nearly a third of the 50% carbon emissions reductions the UK needs to make by 2030 could be achieved through existing digital technology, such as smart meters, supercomputers, weather modelling and artificial intelligence.

Using devices like laptops, tablets and smart TVs for longer before upgrading is also recommended in the report, which said a smartphone kept for two years represents about half of all the “embodied emissions” it will generate through its lifetime.

Instead, people are encouraged to buy a second-hand device or pass their old kit on to make a difference.

Failing that, recycle gadgets left lying around in a drawer at home, as this amount to a form of landfill.

Tech giants must play their part by being more open with data on their carbon footprint, scientists said.

“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.

“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.

“Transparent technology can benefit consumers, the technology sector and the planet. If more people are confident in moving their computing on to the cloud, energy savings are possible using more efficient data centres.

“We must stay alert to digital demand outpacing the carbon emission reductions this transition promises.

“But this report shows how addressing barriers to innovation and harnessing the potential of our technology can make a sustainable net-zero future a reality.”