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Will CO2 Emissions Become an Additional Campaign Metric in Digital Advertising?

By: Gabi Sergi    October 2, 2023

Phrases such as “sustainably scopes” and “carbon emission optimizations” are now entering the digital advertising conversation, shattering the idea that digital advertising is just in the cloud with no physical impact. Anne Coghlan, Chief Operations Officer of Scope3, a carbon emission measurement firm that works with digital media players like Insider, Vox Media, and DoubleVerify, explains that “digital” truly means warehouses of servers plugged into national grids using mass amounts of computing power to run the advertising ecosystem. The name Scope3 refers to the third business sustainability scope measurement that houses the impact of digital ads.

Scope 1: This scope measures how much carbon dioxide is produced from a company’s immediate operations, such as natural gas used to heat an office building.

Scope 2: This scope measures a company’s indirect emissions, or the fuel consumed off-site that ultimately creates the power for a company. These emissions are mostly electricity based, such as the fuel used to create the electricity that’s purchased and used by a company.

Scope 3: Everything else! Up to 90% of most businesses’ carbon emissions comes from the scope three category. All emissions beyond those related to powering a company’s own physical operations live here, including the company’s role in the digital advertising ecosystem. The digital ad market alone can make up as much as 25% of a company’s scope three emissions.

Scope3’s The State of Sustainable Advertising Q1 2023 report shed insight even deeper with the findings below:

  • Programmatic advertising creates 100,000 metric tons of carbon dioxide every month in the U.S., which is equivalent to burning about 11.2 million gallons of gas.
  • Serving 1,000 digital ad impressions uses the same amount of energy as doing a load of laundry in a washing machine — excluding the dryer — which produces a global average of 514.8 grams of CO2.
  • A publisher’s average carbon emissions per 1,000 impressions can range between 187 to 1,772 gCO2PM (or grams of carbon dioxide per mile).
  • The top 10% of the worst-offending domains (publishers on the upper end of that range, between 950 to 1,772 gCO2PM) emit 33,500 metric tons of CO2e per month across the U.S., Great Britain, France, Germany and Australia. That’s the same amount of carbon pollution produced from driving a car 86 million miles.

This information sheds hope for new opportunities and increased advertising quality. Additionally, making any progress to decarbonize relies on our ability to know how much advertising impacts CO2 emissions. Globally, clients are asking more about sustainability, with an estimated 50% interested in making their ads more environmentally friendly (Digiday). This increased demand for sustainability is a win-win for digital campaign performance because low-CO2 emission and low-clutter publishers are higher quality and are proving to hold or improve campaign performance. Additionally, an early study conducted by MAGNA and ad-filtering technology company Eyeo revealed lower-carbon-producing ad slots are more likely to perform better in brand lift studies and earn much higher ROI.

Sustainability cannot be the only decision-making factor by far. Emissions data is becoming an additional campaign metric alongside other performance metrics. However, there is some fear that setting thresholds around carbon emissions at this very early stage will create negative connotations around sustainability for publishers that are otherwise willing to try to reduce their carbon output. Currently, perfect is the enemy of good and learning about the evolving landscape and adapting as needed is vital for success.