Interactive Advertising Bureau
30 May 2024

Connecting the Dots: Product-Level Programmatic Emissions and AdTech’s Total Greenhouse Gas Footprint

Dimitris Beis, Data Analyst & Sustainability Manager at IAB Europe shares his thoughts on the interplay between product-level programmatic emissions and the total GHG footprint of ad tech platforms across the ecosystem, as covered in Cedara's new research report.

In recent months, the conversation on sustainability in digital advertising has been largely centred on the development of much-anticipated product-level standards. The anticipation is justified; brands have long expressed that the streamlining of environmental performance estimation is a key prerequisite to substantial reductions of their ad spend’s carbon footprint. A common basis for emissions models would also enable solutions providers to focus on optimisation and deal with the uncertainty created by the current variance between estimates.

Programmatic is an area of focus, commonly regarded as a hotspot in terms of a digital ad campaign’s value chain. Trust and transparency, supply path optimisation, measurement, and ad fraud prevention are all topics that share a significant intersection with environmental efficiency.

While viewing the issue of programmatic emissions through a product-level lens is certainly valuable in terms of integrating greenhouse gas (GHG) impact into the decision-making processes (especially to IAB Europe members, brought together by the digital advertising business model and value chain), an enterprise-level perspective can provide valuable insights. Cedara’s newest research report, titled Scope 1-3 Emissions Measurement for Digital Media Businesses, addresses a topic that sometimes takes the role of the elephant in the room: the interplay between product-level programmatic emissions and the total GHG footprint of ad tech platforms across the ecosystem. Cedara’s strategy is characterised by a focus on enterprise-level emissions; the figures shared in the research report represent averages of activity and intensity data collected directly from digital media businesses.

Before addressing the report’s implications, it must be noted that it is also a great educational resource for digital ad professionals seeking to build an understanding of emissions scopes within their field. The report includes a clear explanation of the emissions sources considered based on GHG Protocol’s categories. Besides product-level emissions, considerations include corporate overhead such as purchased electricity and business travel across all three emissions scopes.

What important insights are shared in the report?

  1. More than 95% of a programmatic ad platform’s total emissions fall under scope 3, also known as supply chain emissions. Of those, more than 90% come from media, as estimated by the SRIxAD framework. The framework includes ad selection and delivery infrastructure as well as user devices as emissions sources.
  2. Of those emissions tied to programmatic, about 73% are tied to auctioning calls (avail transmission, bid requests/responses) and 14% are tied to the transmission of the creative. In total, 87% of emissions result from network utilisation, and only 6% result from data centres.
  3. In the case of managed services, 63% of emissions are associated with transmission of the creative, and 33% result from load and render on user devices.

What are the implications?

  1. On voluntary reduction targets set through the Science-Based Targets initiative: digital ad emissions must be included in the emissions inventory of any firm with an environmental profile resembling the above. Quoting the report, “SBTi requires that if total Scope 3 emissions represent 40% or more of total scopes 1, 2, and 3 emissions, then they shall be included in near-term targets. SBTi doesn’t yet have an understanding of the total emissions derived from media delivery so businesses may be able to slip through by leaving out media operations. However, the media industry should assume that SBTi will have this data in the future which could have a possible effect on a business' prior net zero submission (assuming media data was not included).” Cedara’s conclusion is aligned with a previous IAB Europe blog post on SBTi and GHG Protocol.
  1. On programmatic ad platforms considering their sustainability strategy: good news, upcoming standards will enable harmonised estimation of the apparent carbon hotspot in the value chain. As such, the levers for reduction are likely to become clearer. When reducing programmatic waste and addressing issues, such as excessive reselling, ad tech platforms will also be tackling their largest source of emissions. The digital advertising ecosystem must work together to support these efforts and minimise GHG impact across the value chain; these emissions are part of scope 3 for everyone involved.
  2. On emissions modelling and placement- or campaign-level GHG estimation: additional work is required to understand the actual environmental impact of network transfers. At present, there is no clear consensus regarding the GHG intensity of the internet. It would be virtually impossible for firms within the digital advertising ecosystem to model a system so large and complex. However, there are meaningful actions that can be undertaken to ensure the intensities used are as representative as possible given they can significantly alter final estimates:
    1. Assess intensities derived from research and lifecycle assessments (LCA) in terms of robustness. A qualitative check can include parameters such as recency and applicability of assumptions. For example, LCAs may rely on data that is only representative of specific local markets.
    2. Refine the network transmission component of GHG estimation solutions through increased levels of granularity in terms of data transfer and payloads. Furthermore, integrate modelling of content delivery networks; their usage likely has a substantial impact on total efficiency across both data centres and networks.
    3. Converge on specific common assumptions and protect GHG estimates from undue adjustments. Seeing as network usage represents both a large and largely uncertain portion of total emissions, it might be prudent to establish a baseline intensity until estimates can be further refined.

Cedara’s report is a valuable addition to the growing collection of work connecting advancements in product-level GHG estimation with enterprise-level accounting. With a significant portion of programmatic ad platforms' total emissions falling under scope 3, particularly from ad delivery and network utilisation, the path forward involves concerted efforts in streamlining estimation methods and targeting the most impactful areas for reduction. Embracing upcoming standards will not only clarify the carbon footprint across the value chain but also enable ad tech platforms to effectively address their largest sources of emissions, thereby supporting voluntary reduction targets such as those set by the Science-Based Targets initiative. As the industry moves towards more precise GHG intensity assessments and harmonised modelling frameworks, collaboration and transparency will be key in minimising the environmental impact of digital advertising and achieving long-term sustainability goals.

Emissions estimation, carbon footprint across the value chain, and voluntary reduction targets are just a few of the core areas IAB Europe’s Sustainability Standards Committee focuses on. If you are interested in finding out more about any of these topics, the work of the committee, or how you can get involved, please contact Colombe at or me at

Committee participation is open to all members of IAB Europe and key resources produced by the committee can be explored in our Sustainability Hub here.

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