Today, many organizations are implementing new sustainability strategies to reduce emissions produced by their operations. However, business leaders often overlook carbon output from digital media and advertising. In recent years, leading agencies in the advertising and marketing space have finally begun to shine a light on media decarbonization. As more organizations take steps towards addressing the climate crisis and building a foundation for a sustainable future, ad agencies must follow suit.

What is Media Decarbonization?

Overall, media decarbonization refers to any “significant reduction in the carbon intensity of media agencies’ output.” This can refer to carbon emissions reductions from either media planning or placement. Any activity that relies on digital infrastructure generates carbon, which includes producing, hosting, and sharing digital media.

Why is media decarbonization necessary? Online marketing and advertising assets might be viewed as sustainable in comparison to the physical waste produced by print media, but digital media output accounts for a larger share of carbon emissions than many would expect. For example, people are increasingly aware of the environmental impact of air travel, which represents 2.5% of global emissions. But today, digital initiatives actually represent 3.5% of global greenhouse gas emissions. This percentage has increased by 6% annually for the past five years, which means that the digital ecosystem is officially the fastest growing source of GHG emissions.

Recent statistics on digital media’s environmental impact should give advertising leaders pause. The average online ad impression actually releases as much CO2 as driving an electric car anywhere from 0.4m to 9.65m or turning on an LED light bulb for up to 700 seconds. Furthermore, the average digital advertising campaign launched by a single advertiser produces about 323 lbs of CO2. This is equivalent to the amount of CO2 released by 160 round-trip flights between New York and Paris.

Media Decarbonization Initiatives

To support media decarbonization across the advertising sector, numerous organizations have launched ambitious sustainability initiatives. For example, leading media investment company GroupM, which currently represents 30% of media across 80 markets, is building a new carbon calculator intended to one day serve as the industry standard. GroupM is the sole marketing communications company that accounts for media placement emissions in their targets.

GroupM is working in alignment with the organization Ad Net Zero. Ad Net Zero is assisting leading ad agencies, digital media companies, and technology companies around the world along the path to decarbonization, including Dentsu, Google, Meta, and more. Ad Net Zero has established a five-point action plan for companies to guide them through the decarbonization process. Companies begin by taking action to curb operational emissions first, then move on to reducing emissions from ad production, media planning and buying, and awards and events. Finally, they shift to using advertising as a vehicle for promoting sustainable consumer behavior. Ad Net Zero also offers resources through AdGreen to assist companies with media decarbonization.

Other organizations are also working to develop carbon calculators and additional tools so that businesses can view their overall GHG emissions. The French trade association SRI creates carbon calculators to measure the emissions impact of different forms of media, as well as digital campaigns as a whole. This approach will help advertisers see how their carbon emissions levels are connected to different formats, as well as their distribution volumes. DiMPACT is a collaborative project guided by researchers from the University of Bristol, encompassing more than twenty media and technology companies. They are designing a similar online tool, which will simplify carbon emissions calculations across the downstream value chain of digital media content.

Currently, these organizations stand at the forefront of the push towards media decarbonization. With time, other institutions will likely follow suit. As improved carbon calculators and similar tools become more readily available, organizations will be able to invest in effective media decarbonization with ease.

Media Decarbonization Techniques

The need for media decarbonization is clear - but in the meantime, what small steps can ad agencies and individual companies take to start decarbonizing their own digital media strategies? Companies that want to emphasize media decarbonization can implement some of these tactics to reduce their carbon output:

  1. Calculate Your Emissions: First, you’ll need to gain an understanding of your current emissions status, specifically in regards to your media production and distribution. You can plug your media plan details into a carbon calculator to see your campaign’s footprint.
  1. Reduce Impression Wastage and Data Waste: Every time one of your ads appears on a platform for audiences, it generates emissions. With capped frequency, you can limit ad appearances. Make sure to run ads across necessary platforms and channels only, and think about how you reduce your reliance on high-carbon formats. For instance, shorter videos with lower resolutions release less carbon than long videos with high resolutions.
  1. Recycle Existing Content: Shooting, editing, and producing digital media contributes to your emissions, too, especially if you need to collaborate with external institutions for these projects. Consider how you can “recycle” and repurpose video footage, images, or other digital assets for new campaigns.
  1. Shift Delivery Times: If you run ads at peak consumption times, you can place additional stress on the power grid, which increases your campaign’s carbon footprint. Instead, assess whether you could afford to run ads at non-peak times while retaining enough viewers.
  1. Evaluate Your Supply Chain: Until business leaders assess their carbon emissions across their company’s whole supply chain, they often do not realize that their suppliers’ operations can constitute a huge percentage of their emissions.

When considering the sheer scope of digital media output, focusing on media decarbonization can feel like an overwhelming undertaking. But even minor changes in this area can have a positive impact - in fact, small changes like these can actually slash emissions from an individual campaign by 50%. As corporations look towards an eco-friendly future, media decarbonization will become an integral aspect of sustainability strategies.