Reducing CO2 emissions increases advertising impact

Climate researchers are certain that we will exceed an increase of 1.5 degrees Celsius by 2030. Urgent action is now needed in every industry. Green claims have long since become a common component of many advertising campaigns, as companies have realized that sustainability has become an important issue for consumers. In order to prevent greenwashing, i.e. presenting products or services as greener than they really are, the EU created rules aimed at the measurability and truthfulness of advertising messages. However, the question of how we deal with advertising that communicates sustainability without communicating sustainably is still too rarely asked.

According to the consulting firm Fifty-Five, the digital ecosystem is responsible for around 3.5 percent of carbon emissions worldwide. The display of advertising in particular causes high CO2 emissions. According to a calculation by Scope3, which measures the carbon footprint of digital advertising, online advertising emits up to 7.2 million tons of CO2 every year. This corresponds to the electricity consumption of around 1.4 million households. Programmatic advertising is a particular culprit in this system. In the US, UK, Australian, German and French markets alone, the programmatic advertising industry generates more than 200,000 tons of CO2 every month, or around 2.4 million tons annually. Scope3 compares this amount to the emissions of over 90 million liters of gasoline.

What's more, a not insignificant proportion of this spending is not even accompanied by successful advertising. A joint study by Scope3 and Ebiquity analyzed more than 375 million dollars of ad spend from 43 advertisers and found that 15.3 percent of ad spend was wasted on inventory that added no value to their business while generating excessive amounts of carbon emissions. According to a 2023 report by the American Association of National Advertisers (ANA), at least 23 percent of annual programmatic spend is also wasted.

The high environmental impact of programmatic advertising arises in several places. On the one hand, a high amount of CO2 emissions is generated during the ad selection process. Secondly, this type of advertising playout has led to the emergence of so-called "Made for Advertising" websites (MFA). As the name suggests, MFAs are usually created to generate advertising revenue without offering any added value in terms of content. ANA estimates that around 15 percent of all digital advertising money ends up on MFA sites. 86 percent of respondents in a YouGov/Picnic survey said they felt overwhelmed and tended to ignore ads completely when confronted with an excess of advertising on a website, as is the case with MFA sites. Scope3 categorizes sites of this type as "Climate Risk Inventory" and calculated that emissions in the German advertising market would fall by 60.7 percent if campaigns did without this inventory.

These figures make two things clear. Firstly, the advertising industry generates high emissions at the expense of the environment and therefore has a major social responsibility to reduce them. Secondly, a large proportion of emissions are generated by advertising that promises neither a benefit for consumers nor success for advertisers. Reducing emissions would therefore not only benefit the environment, but also increase the impact of campaigns. To overcome this challenge, advertisers should ask themselves where they can best reach their target groups. Pages that are overloaded with advertising will quickly trigger ad annoyance among users, which means that they will either not notice the advertising they are shown at all or even notice it negatively. Reaching people on more qualitative sites should therefore become the focus of the advertising strategy again. In this way, brands can avoid environmentally harmful practices and at the same time ensure that their target group perceives the advertising message better.

For a brief explanation of how online advertising causes such high CO2 emissions, watch this video.