Digital Publishing Guest Columns
4 mins read

How digital media can reach net-zero carbon emissions by 2030

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One ad impression represents one gram of carbon, and the digital media industry produces a lot of it. In this opinion piece, Sharethrough’s Frank Maguire outlines what publishers, advertisers, and ad tech vendors need to know to be able to start addressing the challenge of reducing emissions, as well as what steps they can take now.

The digital media industry is beginning to act upon an unintended consequence of delivering ads online: massive amounts of carbon emissions. While a number of agencies, brands and adtech companies have started committing to net-zero carbon emissions by as early as 2030, a number of steps must be taken for the whole industry to reach those goals.

Understanding Carbon Emissions in Digital Advertising

Digital technologies account for an estimated 4% of global greenhouse emissions, which is more than the 2.5% generated by the aviation industry. Digital advertising powers much of the Internet and represents a noteworthy portion of those carbon emissions, with one ad impression representing one gram of carbon, on average.

These emissions are bucketed into three categories known as “Scopes.” Scope 1 and 2 emissions come from an organization’s business activities, such as the energy to power buildings, offices and vehicles. Scope 3 emissions are generated by a company’s supply chain and account for more than 90% of an organization’s total carbon waste. In the digital advertising supply chain, Scope 3 emissions are the result of the energy required to power the servers, cloud computing, content production, etc, that power the digital media ecosystem.

To help reduce the impact of the industry’s Scope 3 emissions to create a more sustainable digital advertising ecosystem, there are several steps that must be taken, collectively.

5 Steps to Reach Net-Zero Emissions by 2030

  • Step 1: Education

While a number of organizations have made carbon reduction commitments and solutions, a huge swathe of the industry is still unaware of the problem or does not have a plan in place to address reducing their carbon footprint. The more information, solution and case study sharing the industry can do the faster this education phase will progress.

  • Step 2: Standards for Emissions Measurement

A number of solutions are being built to help track, measure and compensate for carbon emissions, but what is needed is a standard measurement framework to create accountability for all companies in the digital advertising supply chain. AdNetZero’s initiative is a great start at bringing together the right companies to agree on standards, however, it could use more publisher representation. The movement could progress further through standards created by other governing bodies, like the IAB, as well as incentives for companies to measure and report on their carbon emissions.

  • Step 3: Turnkey Buying of Net-Zero Media

Technology that supports green media will scale fastest once advertisers can buy media with net-zero emissions as easily and as performant as the way they buy media on a daily basis today. These solutions mainly fall on the DSPs (Demand Side Platforms) and closed platforms (i.e. Facebook, TikTok, Amazon, etc.), where advertisers conduct the majority of their buys, as well as the SSPs/exchanges (Supply Side Platforms) where media inventory is sold.

The ball is rolling on the SSP side, meaning the DSPs should be close behind with simple solutions to only buy media that is certified net-zero carbon emissions. 

  • Step 4: Publishers Incentivized to Reduce Carbon Emissions

Once DSPs increase advertiser access to green media, publishers with higher carbon emissions could see a reduction in revenue since it will cost the advertiser more to compensate for those emissions. This, along with public reporting of carbon emissions by publishers, could help catalyze publishers big and small to reduce the carbon emissions of their site loads.

  • Step 5: All Servers Powered by Renewable Energy

Google and Amazon’s AWS run many of the servers that power the digital supply chain, although many others exist. Google is already carbon neutral and plans to “run on carbon-free energy, 24/7, at all of [their] data centers by 2030.” AWS plans to be powered by 100% renewable energy by 2025. Both of those will have huge impacts on the industry’s carbon footprint and further push every data server in the industry to reach similar milestones.

The Time is Now

If the ad industry can continue on this trajectory and focus on education, working together to create standards and developing easy-to-execute ways for advertisers to buy net-zero carbon emission media, that 2030 goal is not out of reach. Each day that passes with more carbon entering than exiting the atmosphere is one day closer to an uninhabitable earth. What can you do within your organization to further push this cause?

Frank Maguire
VP of Insights & Strategy, Sharethrough

Sharethrough is one of the top global independent omnichannel ad exchanges. Our publisher partners benefit from directly-sourced demand, scale and quality, prioritizing their monetization efforts while elevating performance. Sharethrough recently partnered with Scope3 and became the first SSP to offer a Green Media Product, called Green PMPs, which is a turnkey way for advertisers to measure and compensate for all the supply chain emissions generated by their display, video, and native impressions. With its headquarters in Montreal, Sharethrough has several offices across North America including San Francisco on the west coast & New York City in the east.