Streaming in HD is eight times worse for the planet, warns Royal Society

Britons have been urged to ditch high definition streaming after a study found it generates eight times more carbon emissions than standard definition (SD).

In a report on tackling climate change, scientists for the Royal Society estimated that digital technology contributes around 1.4pc to 5.9pc to global emissions. 

However, they said simple changes to consumer habits could help reduce that figure. 

Switching from ultra high-definition (UHD) video streaming to HD on a smartphone, for instance, is unlikely to make a difference to viewing quality due to the small screen size, but it would be significantly better for the environment. 

The Royal Society also suggests that video should be switched off on sites such as YouTube if the user is only listening to content, rather than watching. 

This change could save between 1pc and 5pc of the platform’s total emissions, which would have the same impact as running the company’s servers on renewable energy, according to a study by Bristol University.

Scientists have disputed how bad exactly streaming is for the planet but earlier this year, analysts at the International Energy Agency estimated a half-hour Netflix show was equivalent to driving approximately 200 metres in a conventional car.

“Digital technology lets us do things differently and it has huge potential to help achieve net zero – if used responsibly,” said Professor Adrian Friday, Professor of Computing and Sustainability at The University of Lancaster, who is a member of the report working group.

“That means thinking much more carefully about how the entire system impacts on the planet and society. It’s more than the energy efficiency of a video call, or the emissions to build the digital infrastructure that keeps the internet running and growing. It’s how these technologies change our society and habits.”

Nearly a third of the 50pc 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. If that isn’t possible, another way to cut emissions is to recycle unwanted gadgets left languishing in drawers at home.

Other recommendations include working from home where possible and moving data storage to centralised servers, which are often more energy efficient. 

The Royal Society, however, emphasised that an individual’s energy use is just a fraction of the technology industry’s as a whole and the responsibility instead lies with regulators and the platforms.

According to the paper, the government should ensure tech companies publish data about the scope of their emissions and regulators should issue guidance on what is a “proportional” amount of digital technology to use.

Platforms and regulators must also take action on issues such as  limiting streaming resolutions.

COP26, the United Nations Climate Change Conference which will be held in Glasgow next year, should be used to champion international commitment on funding, data, skills and computing facilities to establish the digital infrastructure of the net zero transition, the report added. 

“Data, in conjunction with technologies such as artificial intelligence and digital twins, should be at the heart of the net zero transition, ” said the report.

“Achieving the promise of this data-led net zero transition will require an ambitious, collaborative and challenge-led research and innovation effort.”

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