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Reducing the carbon footprint of digital advertising

Could one reduce the carbon footprint of digital advertising? When it comes to carbon emissions, digital is often criticised, and programmatic advertising in particular. How big is that footprint? And how could one minimise it? How are advertisers reacting? A recent Scope3 study sheds light on this subject. It shows that the digital marketing industry can also contribute to the common effort. This is what Fabien Omont, a representative of Adform, a Danish provider of solutions for digital advertising, told me when I interviewed him.

Reducing the Carbon Footprint of Digital Advertising Isn’t Mission Impossible

Digital advertising carbon footprint
Scope3 has just released a 2023 brief that makes the case for a more responsible digital advertising industry. The link to the study is at the end of the post.

Disclosure: This podcast was produced in partnership with Ecran mobile on behalf of Adform, an Adtech provider. We have written this post with our usual objective of independence and authenticity.

Fabien Omont is Product Marketing Director at Adform. The Adtech company works with Scope3. The latter has just published its report on the State of Sustainable Advertising. By their own admission, Scope3 is ‘the only company to measure end-to-end emissions from across the media and advertising supply chain’.

The Carbon Footprint of Digital Advertising

Scope3 has estimated the CO2 emissions from programmatic advertising at 215,000 metric tonnes of CO2 per month in 5 countries alone. These are Australia, France, Great Britain, Germany and the USA.

The US Alone Accounts for Nearly Half of These Emissions

Carbon footprint digital advertising
Scope3’s measurement of the carbon footprint of digital advertising shows that it emits 215,000 tonnes of CO2 every month in 5 countries (Australia, France, the UK, Germany and the US). This would correspond to the consumption of nearly 24 million gallons of gasoline (91 million litres of petrol) each month. Click the picture to enlarge

In the UK only, each month programmatic advertising emits 30.6k metric tonnes of CO2

‘Digital advertising has become widespread,’ explains Fabien. The Internet amounts to 65.15% of the overall advertising expenditure for a worldwide  total of over US$550 billion. This is indeed considerable.

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‘But beyond these figures, it is important to understand the main factors behind the carbon footprint of digital advertising,’ Fabien went on.

4 top drivers of digital advertising’s carbon footprint

  1. Driver number one is the consumption of the terminals that Internet users are resorting to.
  2. The second driver is how publishers will distribute content around the world. When a person reads an article, questions arise: where and how was it loaded? How was it distributed through the networks up to the user’s terminal?
  3. The third driver is the creative distribution. Has it been optimised and what is its impact on bandwidth usage? Over the years, as bandwidth has improved, the visuals have become bulkier. This has an undeniable ecological knock-on effect.
  4. The fourth and final driver is ad selection. This is the process that is put in place for the Internet user to receive an ad.

Advertising Selection Is Singled Out

Digital advertising carbon footprint
The ad selection criterion is the number one driver in the carbon footprint of digital ads. This is what the Scope3 report says. Click to enlarge the picture.

Ad selection definitely is the main driver behind carbon emissions of digital advertising. It weighs a lot more than terminal usage of even media distribution,’ Fabien explained.

60% of the carbon footprint of programmatic advertising is due to ad selection

Programmatic advertising is not only complex, it is also resource intensive. Fortunately, there are ways to reduce this carbon footprint.

‘The reality of digital advertising,’ explains Fabien, ‘is that the practice of header bidding has become almost universal amongst publishers.

Carbon footprint digital advertising
Header-bidding infographic by Sortable

Multiplying advertising calls

“This is a practice which, to put it simply, consists in increasing the amount of advertising calls to optimise monetisation, i.e. generating double or triple bids, which will inflate the price of the winning bid and therefore make more money in the end.”

This approach is quite commendable from the point of view of monetisation and optimisation of the publisher’s income, Fabien explained, but its impact on carbon footprint is huge.

Advertisers are paying attention

However, advertisers are aware of the problem. This is a good sign Fabien Omont said.

Advertisers’ attitudes are changing and that’s good news

“Advertisers are very curious about what’s going on and the initiatives taken by start-ups like Scope3 and other tech players like Adform,” explains Fabien.

“Above all, advertising associations and media agencies have done a fantastic job of raising awareness amongst advertisers.”

In addition, legislation shall be enforced in the near future. The publication of carbon footprint numbers for digital advertising is indeed likely to become a regulatory requirement.

Getting Results Isn’t That Hard

“We have developed a solution for optimising the reduction of the carbon footprint of digital advertising,” Fabien Omont went on. “And the good news is that getting some good results is quite easy.”

Carbon emissions from digital advertising can very easily be cut in half

“The range of the impact of advertisers’ carbon footprint is very broad. The most virtuous advertisers will emit 55 grams of CO2 per thousand impressions,” explains Fabien, “the highest threshold, goes up to 4,782 grams.

However, Adform has noticed that the vast majority of publishers are well below these extremes, Fabien said.

Decarbonising programmatic advertising

‘If we tackle the top 10% of CO2 emitters, we will soon see a total reduction of 40–50% of carbon emissions due to digital advertising.’

In conclusion, the problem isn’t hopeless. Just by improving practices on the ground, one could achieve satisfactory results.

Digital advertising carbon footprint

Important Notice on the Weight of Digital within the World’s Carbon Emissions

It’s worthy of note that, according to the World Economic Forum, “Studies estimate that digital technologies already contribute between 1.4% to 5.9% of global greenhouse gas emissions”.

Digital technology isn’t therefore responsible for the majority of our carbon footprint, far from that. 

It is far less to blame than the usual suspects, namely transportation, the manufacturing industry and agriculture, as well as central heating.

It should also be noted that carbon emissions are the most significant cause of the pollution we are witnessing but its far from being the only one.

In any case, every effort counts. And those made by the digital industry are to be welcomed and encouraged.

Yann Gourvennec
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Yann Gourvennec

Yann Gourvennec created in 1996. He is a speaker and author of 6 books. In 2014 he went from intrapreneur to entrepreneur, when he created his digital marketing agency. ———————————————————— Yann Gourvennec a créé en 1996. Il est conférencier et auteur de 6 livres. En 2014, il est passé d'intrapreneur à entrepreneur en créant son agence de marketing numérique. More »
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