Decarbonising an entire industry – challenging but achievable

Anne Coghlan
28 November, 22

The carbon truth is out – digital advertising is not exempt in the global contribution to carbon emissions. Given that the Internet has a greater carbon footprint than the entire aviation industry, the myth that ‘going digital’ means ‘going green’ has certainly been busted.

And while digital advertising may only be a portion of the Internet contributions, that leaves an entire industry – previously unaware of its impact – without an established action plan. Until now.

The good news is that digital advertising is well positioned to act quickly, drive meaningful reduction in its carbon emissions and serve as a roadmap for other industries looking to do the same.

The carbon state of advertising

At the heart of the digital ad industry’s problem are countless complex supply chains, with thousands of interconnections. Alone, each player contributes seemingly insignificant amounts of carbon emissions.

However, a single programmatic digital ad campaign can buy across hundreds – maybe thousands – of domains, with publishers making technology-based decisions to maximise their revenue within each domain. All requests and connections are channelled through data centres – the factories of the 21st Century. Suddenly, the small quantities of carbon account for a huge proportion of the world’s emissions.

Measuring carbon emissions is also a problem. Currently, carbon measurement in digital advertising is based on industry averages. Reports often produce analysis such as ‘programmatic advertising generates x amount of carbon emissions on average per year.’ While useful to get a bigger picture, this does not represent each individual business’ contributions.

This process fails to recognise businesses for positive changes. It could also hide those who choose to do nothing. There’s an opportunity to supplement the guides provided by channel averages with the development of an industry-wide language that promotes granular measurement – doing so will reward those driving change, while encouraging the rest to act.

Key supply chain participants

All sections of the supply chain are starting to think about sustainability and have their own goals, but each plays a crucial role in the wider network.


Driven by both emerging policies and consumer demand, brands hold the greatest influence and ability to spark change. Visibility is critical when it comes to assessing carbon output and influencing strategies moving forwards.

With greater understanding of their carbon output, brands can demand metrics from their agencies and ad-tech providers, as well as comprehensive insights into what specific steps were taken to implement campaigns in the most sustainable way possible. Brands not only need a change in practices, but also a change in mindset.


Agencies are in a strong position to help the brands they work with adopt more sustainable practices. Clear visibility of the entire cradle-to-grave process is vital to ensuring consistency across media buying activity.

Recent agency initiatives, like creating carbon calculators at a channel level, are a start. However, they lack insight on a granular level leading to an incompleteness of data. Inconsistency is the enemy of progress, hence the need for an industry standard to keep the different sections of the supply chain on track.


Publishers arguably have one of the most direct impacts on the supply chain, so their commitment to optimisation and reduction will jump start the cycle.

Standard practice for publishers is to partner with as many SSPs (supply side platforms that help a publisher monetise its properties) as possible, making multiple calls for one impression. And, to remain competitive, other publishers would then increase their call volume, triggering a digital advertising arms race. Publishers must therefore carefully consider the impact of all partners in their network. Aligning energy consumption efforts with the goals of their industry partners will be key for progress.

Going green

Green digital advertising does not just mean having a smaller carbon footprint. It means the industry must start ‘working better.’

For digital advertising, green media is rising in popularity to help measure emissions and manage workflow tracking and reporting on carbon removal products. It’s media that is bought and sold in a way where the carbon impact is accurately measured and then compensated to account for the complexity of the system from the campaign through delivery on a media property.

This option introduces the concept of a set carbon price for media which incentivises media owners toward reduction of the supply chain, while also experiencing revenue benefits as brands and agencies shift spend to green media that helps them meet their carbon goals.

Leading from the front

Supply chains are not groups of businesses that work in isolation. The thousands of interconnections mean each participant is impacted by the actions of another – and this should be used as an advantage.

Establishing market-wide expectations and goals that are driven by the entire supply chain is how we can turn a whole industry green.

Not only this, but decarbonising digital advertising can be used as a case study for future movements. For example, the pace at which digital can change practices – with positive revenue results – is much faster than other industry supply chains, and the influential power of this $400bn industry to create impact through action is incredible.

It’s time to lead by example.


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