Digital Advertising’s Contribution to Scope 3 Emissions

February 13, 2023 — by MediaMath    


It seems that in 2023, our list of environmental threats is endless.

From global warming and rising sea levels to plastic and air pollution, there’s a lot of work to be done to literally save our planet. Coming up with the right solutions starts with both educating ourselves and taking accountability for our roles in contributing to these issues. And digital advertisers are not immune.

Many digital advertisers assume that because they don’t require paper, ink or a printing press to deliver ads, they have more sustainable practices than traditional media advertisers. But it’s estimated that a single digital ad campaign delivering 1 million impressions emits the same carbon footprint as a round-trip flight from Boston to London. In total, digital advertising activities generate approximately 3.5% of global greenhouse gasses every year. 

To understand how we can make advertising sustainable, let’s take a look at what contributes to carbon emissions, the leading cause of greenhouse gasses in the environment. 

The 1,2,3 of Carbon Emissions 

Carbon emissions are classified into three categories of scope:

  1. Scope 1 emissions come from assets the company owns and operates directly. Examples include heating a building the company owns and fuel consumed by company-owned vehicles.  
  1. Scope 2 emissions come from assets the company uses or leases. These indirect emissions include examples like purchasing electricity to power office lighting and internet access.  
  1. Scope 3 emissions are not produced by the company but are generated through its value chain, including activities like employee travel, transporting products and advertising.

It’s estimated that over 70% of the emissions companies generate are scope 3. While the 

Greenhouse Gas Protocol requires reporting of all scope 1 and scope 2 emissions, reporting of scope 3 emissions remains optional.

The top 3 areas in which advertisers generate scope 3 emissions 

Where exactly does advertising contribute to scope 3 emissions?  

If you think about an omnichannel advertising campaign from initial brand concept to the last impression served, developing the creative assets often requires transportation, electricity, hospitality and many other carbon-emitting activities. Once the creative assets are produced, there is then the actual execution of the media campaign which generates scope 3 carbon emissions through three main activities:

First, there’s business travel, which can contribute 70-90% of measured scope 3 emissions for large, global brands and agencies. This is not only employee business travel within your own company, but also the companies that play a role in your value chain, such as your ad verification company.

Second, complex value chains themselves contribute to carbon emission production. In general, the more companies and individuals involved in producing value for your business activities, the more carbon emissions are generated. And we know digital advertising has a lot of this complexity going on.

Third is media planning. Ad formats and inventory are two aspects that contribute the most to the carbon generated through your media buying. A high-impact, non-IAB standard creative, for instance, will require more device CPU to render the experience, as well as energy to transmit the data the ad produces, such as the percent of creative that was viewable. 

If you’re interested in understanding how to reduce your brand’s or agency’s environmental impact, download our whitepaper POV: Sustainability in Advertising. Also, stay tuned for our next post in this series on ways we can make media buying more sustainable.