Stop Streaming In Ultra HD On Phones To Save Planet, Scientists Warn

The world’s oldest independent scientific academy, London’s Royal Society has published a report detailing ways that people can use their tech to help reduce harmful emmissions.

The Royal Society’s ‘Digital Technology and the Planet: Harnessing computing to achieve net zero’ report provide real examples of how people can help reduce carbon emissions.

One of the most striking recommendations was that mobile phone users should seek to “streaming responsibly.”

Green recommendations

The society report stated that mobile users “avoiding streaming unnecessarily high-resolution or unnecessary content would help save emissions.”

It stated that “streaming one hour on a smartphone generates roughly 8 times more emissions in 4K or UHD (Ultra High Definition) compared with SD (Standard Definition), while users may not be able to see any difference on small screens.”

“Arguably decisions on limiting streaming resolution should be taken by platforms and regulators,” the report added. “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 the content – a study showed this could save between 1 percent and 5 percent of the service’s total emissions, a reduction comparable to what is achieved with running Youtube’s servers on renewable energy.”

It adds that this is despite users potentially not being able to see any difference in video quality on their small screens.

Another suggestion is that people hold onto their tech devices (including TVs, tablets, and phones) for longer and recycle when possible.

According to the Royal Society, digital technologies contribute up to 5.9 percent of global emissions.

Besides the advice for consumers, the report also recommends ways that the government and industry can reduce their impact on the sustainability of the planet.

Tech recommendations

For example, the Society recommends that tech companies must also play their part and lead by example on providing transparent information about the energy consumption and proportionality of their digital products and services.

“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 chair of the report’s working group, Professor Andy Hopper FREng FRS, VP of the Royal Society and Professor of Computer Technology, University of Cambridge.

“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.

“Transparent technology can benefit consumers, the technology sector and the planet,” he added. “If more people are confident in moving their computing onto 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.”

The report recommends four key points:

  1. Build a trusted data infrastructure for net zero by establishing national and international frameworks for collecting, sharing and using data for net zero applications. This could include setting up a taskforce for digitalisation of the net zero transition, to identify priorities across sectors and work with tech companies to ensure systems can be scrutinised, are secure, and benefit communities.
  2. Secondly, the UK and indeed the world needs to optimise its digital carbon footprint, with the government ensuring that tech companies share publicly data about the full scope of their emissions, in particular from data centres. In addition, tech firms should schedule computing activities for times of peak renewable supply wherever possible. And regulators such as the Financial Conduct Authority, should develop guidance on the energy proportionality of digital technology, such as Bitcoin.
  3. The third point concerns establishing a data-enabled net zero economy, which will entail building skills for a digital and net zero economy at all levels as part of the economic recovery from the Covid-19 pandemic. This includes using COP26 to champion international commitment on funding, data, skills and computing facilities, and setting research and innovation challenges to digitalise the net zero transition.
  4. Fourthly and finally, the Government should update its policies, research funding frameworks and Industrial Strategy Challenge Funds to reflect the net zero imperative.
Tom Jowitt

Tom Jowitt is a leading British tech freelancer and long standing contributor to Silicon UK. He is also a bit of a Lord of the Rings nut...

View Comments

  • Small difference but streaming 4k onto a small screen is just silly even on a 40" screen you might not see it, on my 55" TV at normal viewing distance its marginal (ok image processing at work here)!

    and will someone please tell companies like Apple (worst offender) that making your products with built obsolescence is a crime against humanity, why stop people easily replacing batteries, why stop supporting older products ? Not just Apple of course, Samsung is now just as guilty. Why wireless buds, stupid design when a simple chord will do, and one less ting to have to charge (or loose!)

    But also other appliance makers - My Phillips electric toothbrush battery is starting to fail after just over a year, but battery is sealed and can't be replaced (going to give it a try though!) - why?

    Its just stupid design or deliberate money making?

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