Green Digital Campaigns: An Earth Day Check-In

In unprecedented environmental upheaval, AdMonsters revisits the conversation around green digital advertising. This comprehensive analysis examines the industry’s progress toward net zero emissions, unveils emerging threats to these goals, and highlights innovative responses from key players. With Earth Day as a backdrop, we delve into how the ad tech sector is adapting to the realities of climate change and the pivotal role it plays in shaping a greener digital future.

In 2023, AdMonsters spoke with industry experts about the feasibility of green digital advertising campaigns, and the steps required of all players for our industry to achieve net zero. As Earth Day approaches, we revisited the topic to assess progress, identify new threats to carbon reduction goals, and explore critical issues facing our industry players.

This Is Personal

Every year, it seems, is the hottest one on record, and 2023 was no exception, according to The World Meteorological Organization. In fact, the WMO says last year “smashed” all previous records, with annual average global temperature approaching 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels. If the average goes up any higher the world’s coral reefs and the Arctic ice will be threatened.

The impact of climate change isn’t theoretical; many of us have felt it directly. Last summer heavy rainfall in the Northeastern U.S., particularly in Vermont, New York, Massachusetts, and Connecticut, led to widespread and destructive flooding. Where I live, massive flooding wiped out homes and businesses and in some cases, entire neighborhoods

Across the Southeast and Southwest residents sweltered in record-breaking temperatures (Phoenix, AZ experienced 111 days where temperatures crossed 100 degrees). Worryingly,  United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres warned that, “The era of global warming has ended; the era of global boiling has arrived.”

And the crises kept coming. Canada experienced its worst wildfire season, with over 18 million hectares burned (one hectare equals 2.47 acres). Those fires spewed some 480 million tons of carbon emissions into the atmosphere and created dangerous air quality conditions for people in the U.S.

The summer of 2023 also saw unprecedented wildfires across Europe, with several countries experiencing their worst wildfire seasons on record, burning over 118,000 hectares of land and releasing 20 million tons of CO2. No part of the world was spared; even the Arctic burned

Just last week, heavy rainfall battered the Middle East, leaving more than a dozen dead. 

We could go on but you get the idea: our dear old world is in a crisis, and we’re all suffering for it. This is personal.

Digital Advertising Industry Faces the Music

I remember the early 1990s when digital publishing was beginning to emerge. Back then we hailed it as a green alternative to printed media. Yes, paper was supposed to be recyclable, but at the time recycling was often aspirational (NYC Mayor Bloomberg cut recycling in his first year in office, saying most of it ended up in landfills, although two terms later he had a change of heart).

Rather than reducing pollution, the internet has turned into a carbon hog, generating greenhouse gasses at a level that’s on par with the airline industry. The digital advertising sector — with its competitive real-time auctions and AI applications — is a big contributor to greenhouse gas emissions. 

According to The Shift Project, by 2025 7.2% of global carbon emissions will be due to the internet. Of that 24% – or 1.7% of global carbon emissions – is directly attributable to digital advertising.

What’s more, the energy required by digital advertising continues to rise. MFA sites, which account for 21% of ad impressions in the open markets, generate 26% more carbon than non-MFA ones. And while the industry celebrates the advent of generative AI, new research is emerging that it is a carbon-heavy technology that massively complicates our goals to lower GHG emissions.

According to MIT, creating an image with generative AI requires as much energy as fully charging a phone. The bigger the model — i.e. the more inference models to fire — the bigger the carbon output. Meanwhile, the industry is preparing to deploy AI to generate personalized images and ad copy at scale.

Climate activist Bill McKibben said we’re not going to solve the climate crises one Tesla at a time, meaning we need bigger actions than a single consumer opting for an EV over a gas-guzzling SUV. We need actions taken on an industrial scale to hold global temperatures steady and then begin to lower them. In this respect, we can celebrate some good news.

A Reason for Hope

Although we like to talk about data and operations being “in the cloud” the reality is that data creation, processing, and storage are very much Earthbound, running on huge machines in climate-controlled data centers. A single data center generates  50 million kg CO2e, equivalent to the emissions of over 10,000 cars. 

Fortunately, data centers are going green. In 2023, data sites leasing renewable energy increased by 50%. Today, they use some 40 gigawatts of renewable energy (for perspective, one gigawatt equals 2.469 million solar panels or one billion watt hours).

Those green data centers allow digital ad-tech companies to move their operations to the cloud, and achieve Net-Zero, as OpenX has proved possible.

“We all have to take responsibility for what’s in our own backyard, and that over which we have control within our own circle of influence. I am very hopeful because I’m seeing a lot of really positive change in that area,” Brian Murphy, Founder of Alpine Project told AdMonsters.

He continued: “As it happens, our backyard is pretty big and it accounts for as much as 1.7% of global GHG emissions. By measuring and reducing the environmental impact of our own business operations and value chains, we can make our broader industry more environmentally sustainable over the long term and lead the way for other industries.” 

From the Green Media Summitto Mediavine’s partnership with Climate Success platform 51toCarbonZero (51-0), we see the digital advertising ecosystem taking steps to curb climate change. We have a long way to go, but at least we’re on the road.