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Watching Videos in HD Has a Surprising Environmental Impact

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Jan. 5 2021, Updated 10:10 a.m. ET

Although high-definition TV (HDTV) is popular amongst avid movie buffs, reality TV junkies, and gamers alike, it seems as though it may not be the best option for the environment. Recent studies show that HD generates higher carbon emissions than standard definition, and therefore, opting for standard definition — as you would have in the good old days — may be a greener and more responsible decision.

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“There are many routes to net zero [carbon emissions], but digital technology has a central role to play,” said lead author Professor Andy Hopper from Cambridge University, as per The BBC. “We must stay alert to digital demand outpacing the carbon emission reductions this transition promises.”

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What is high definition TV (HDTV)?

What you see on a TV screen — whether you're watching HDTV or standard (SDTV) — is an image that's entirely comprised of pixels. According to Explain that Stuff, SDTV generally stacks 480 rows and 640 columns of pixels into each picture, while HDTV crams far more (usually 1,080 rows and 1,920 columns, depending on the quality of your TV), to give viewers a more detailed and higher-resolution image.

The way in which each image scans in SD versus HD also differs tremendously. SDTV uses a technique called interlacing, in which odd-numbered rows of pixels show up before even-numbered rows, which made the image move more quickly than if each pixel came up at the same time. But now, with better technology, each of the pixels can show up at the same time, to make fast-action pictures come in more detailed, smoother, and more quickly — that's why sports fans especially love HDTV.

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HD is more harmful to the environment than SD, but you won't have to swap your TV to make changes.

According to recent studies led by scientists at the U.K.'s Royal Society, streaming a single HD video on a phone alone generates approximately eight times the carbon emissions as streaming in standard, per The BBC. Digital technology as a whole contributes to upwards of 1.4 percent of global emissions, so it's important that we address it while trying to lower our environmental impacts. However, you don't have to totally swap out your TV — you can make a difference on a smaller scale.

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Start by defaulting the videos you stream on your phone to SD as opposed to HD — researchers assure consumers it wouldn't even make much of a difference on a such a small screen. On a similar note, they also advise consumers to turn off accompanying videos while streaming music, if they aren't watching them — Spotify and on YouTube are guilty of doing this.

Meanwhile, the report also notes that technology production results in high carbon emissions, and therefore, it's suggested that consumers own devices for as long as possible before trading it in for something new. Buying refurbished devices or shared equipment is also a great way to save energy in the realm of technology production. 

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Being aware of your digital environmental impact is important.

Although the environmental impact of digital technology seems minute, especially when compared to the impact of flying or driving, every little difference counts. As per The BBC, Professor Corinne Le Querre from the University of East Anglia said: “To be honest, digital tech is a small fraction of your emissions compared with, say flying even once a year – but every bit of CO2 saving is significant."

"What’s more, we’re trying to prompt people to harness the power of digital to help tackle climate change," Le Querre added. "We have to make sure that the digital revolution supports the climate revolution – and we’re failing to do that at the moment.”

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