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The Carbon Footprint of Watching Television

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Jigna Chandaria | 11:10 UK time, Tuesday, 11 October 2011

In the Green Technology project here at BBC R&D we’re looking at the environmental impact of media technology and how it could be reduced.  In order to get an overview of where the biggest impacts are and so where to focus our efforts, we recently did some work to estimate the carbon footprint of the end-to-end television chain from a programme’s production all the way through to watching it at home.

In recent years, we’ve seen a growth in the number of consumer electronic devices people have in their homes and an increase in individual viewing. Both of these are causing an increase in total power consumption, and hence in carbon footprint.

In this video, my colleague Richard Salmon and I discuss some of the results of the investigation, how energy consumption of televisions sets is changing and what choices viewers have.


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When we considered the whole television chain of production, distribution and consumption, we found that the largest environmental impact associated with a television programme was not the energy consumed in making it, but the energy used by the millions of televisions, set-top boxes and other consumer devices involved in watching it. This amounts to 76% of the total for digital terrestrial television (Freeview); 78% if the programme is watched on BBC iPlayer on a desktop PC and 37% if watched on BBC iPlayer using laptop computers. The trend for larger television and computer screens could increase this, although there is a parallel increase in viewing on low-power mobile devices. Programme-making contributes just 12% to 35% of the carbon footprint of watching television.


When we compared broadcasting with distribution over the Internet, we found that broadcast has a smaller carbon footprint per viewer-hour than Internet distribution for average sized audiences, but not for small audiences or for homes using an aerial amplifier.

Overall, the element with the biggest impact is the display. Larger screens generally use more power and the size of the screen has a bigger effect on the power consumption than the technology that it uses.  New screen technology such as OLED displays look very promising in terms of their power consumption.

So, what can viewers do? We suggest viewers take energy consumption into account when purchasing new television sets. Very soon, the UK will be introducing energy labels for televisions, similar to those for washing machines, fridge freezers etc. This will give televisions a rating for their energy efficiency and so help consumers make purchasing decisions. However, don’t replace your current TV just to save energy, because there will still be the environmental impact of manufacturing and disposal to take account of.

If you’re interested in the details of our research, you can find them in BBC R&D White Paper 189, available here.



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