Net Zero: we need to hurdle three huge obstacles

Net Zero: we need to hurdle three huge obstacles

In advance of Earth Day, Good-Loop’s Hannah Williams examines what is holding up decisive progress on decarbonising the digital advertising ecosystem.

As a significant driving force within the global economy and an important point of influence and engagement for the public, the ad industry can play a key part in supporting the charge to a net carbon zero future.

But with Earth Day looming, what progress has been made across Adland in tackling its own carbon footprint? Certainly, sustainability – particularly across digital channels – has become a key topic across the industry over the last 18 months.

Go to any industry event, and you’re almost guaranteed to see a panel or keynote dedicated to decarbonising digital, while every week it seems like new products and start-ups are launched focused on helping advertising reduce the carbon footprint of their online ads. The number of companies reporting on their ESG commitments has also tripled.

Overlooked for a long time, there has been a real momentum shift and acknowledgement from across the industry recently of the impact digital advertising has on the environment. And with good reason. The rise in programmatic advertising – an already complex and fractured ecosystem – requires more and more energy to transact, which inevitably leads to even more harm being done to the planet.

A typical online ad campaign emits 5.4 tons of carbon — almost a half of what a UK consumer generates every year. We still have a long way to go.

So what’s holding up decisive progress? Well, in my view there are three huge obstacles to overcome on the path to decarbonising the digital advertising ecosystem.

1. Standardisation

To drive adland towards a more sustainable future, we need to agree on a shared way of measuring and reporting on carbon. One carbon measurement framework to rule them all.

At the moment, if you use any of the carbon calculators available across the industry to work on the carbon cost of your media campaigns, you’ll probably receive several different answers to the question: “How much CO2e did this ad campaign emit?”

That’s because there are a million ways to interpret the data, including which variables you use.

To overcome this, there needs to be a coordinated effort among stakeholders to establish standardised metrics and guidelines for measuring and reporting the carbon footprint of digital ads. Being transparent and open about how something is calculated is vital if we are to restore trust across the industry, after all.

Some key players in this space include the IAB Tech Lab, which is exploring how the industry can develop a framework for the measurement and management of greenhouse gas emissions from media, and Ad Net Zero, which has developed a 5-phase decarbonisation plan to guide a transition to net zero. Purpose Disruptors has also developed an “advertised emissions” framework to help advertisers better understand emissions associated with selling more stuff.

Adland has a good track record for global standardisation, with success stories such as VAST and IAB ad sizes. It’s time carbon measurement joined that list.

2. Regulation

There are currently no clear regulations or policies in place to encourage companies to report on or to reduce their carbon footprint in digital advertising.

This lack of regulation results in a lack of accountability and transparency, making it difficult to track progress towards reducing carbon emissions and progressing along the net zero journey. Additionally, companies may not have the incentives to invest in sustainable practices without clear regulations in place.

‘Think about what you’re funding’: takeaways from the Future of Sustainability webinar

While some industry bodies have established opt-in initiatives and guidelines to encourage sustainability, these measures are not mandatory, and their effectiveness is limited without widespread adoption.

With the complexity of the digital advertising supply chain, this regulation and implementation of emission reduction is even more challenging.

The supply chain involves multiple stakeholders, including advertisers, agencies, ad exchanges, and publishers, each with their own interests and priorities. Additionally, companies may not have visibility into the carbon footprint of their advertising campaigns, as data is often shared across the supply chain.

To overcome this barrier, there needs to be greater collaboration and regulation across the supply chain.

This can include establishing clear guidelines for measuring and reporting carbon emissions, incentivising sustainable practices, and encouraging greater data sharing and collaboration.

3. Education

There will never be real progress made on sustainability until everyone has a good grasp of the issues. We’re not climate scientists; we’re advertisers. The ad industry needs a crash course in environmental education.

But you don’t just have to take my word for it. To help understand how the ad industry is tackling the environmental impact of their digital ad campaigns – including the challenges faced and plans for future action – last September we ran a survey of marketers in the UK and US.

One of the key trends to emerge from the study was that a lack of training is holding marketers back – on both sides of the Atlantic.

In the UK and US, around seven in 10 (70% and 69% respectively) of agency marketers and more than half (63% and 54%) of brand marketers believe there are not enough education/training programs on sustainable media.

At Good-Loop we recently ran a crash course on decarbonising digital advertising. But we need more industry-wide training and education programmes that make everybody feel confident in the space.


Decarbonising digital advertising is a complex task that requires collaboration and coordination between industry stakeholders, education, standardisation and government regulations.

The barriers to achieving this goal cannot be overcome without a coordinated effort.

To accelerate progress, industry stakeholders must work together to establish standardised metrics, educate consumers and professionals, incentivise sustainable practices, and increase transparency and collaboration across the supply chain.

By addressing these barriers we can work towards a more sustainable future, and reduce the carbon footprint of digital advertising to create a cleaner industry.

Hannah Williams is impact manager at “purpose-powered” online advertising platform Good-Loop.

Media Jobs