Brand Strategy Climate Crisis Cop26

Why ad agencies think net-zero carbon can offset media supply’s destructive global impact


By John McCarthy, Opinion editor

November 2, 2021 | 7 min read

As awareness of agencies’ impact on the environment increases among adland staff, what changes can media buyers make to ensure they’re doing their bit?


Climate language is nuanced and can be misleading

Many marketers are wrestling with their role in the climate crisis, be it by helping clients embrace greener processes internally or by nudging the public toward more sustainable practices – but the most immediate impact they could make is by hitting net-zero carbon in their media buys.

Unfortunately, this means understanding how much carbon the famously opaque programmatic networks (where most ads are now distributed) discharges.

WPP, one of the world’s largest ad networks, with more than 100,000 staff, is among those that have audited its impact on the environment. It found that 55% of all its carbon emissions came from the media it was distributing ads on. For context, its huge office presence and energy consumption only accounted for 1.7% of its total carbon footprint.

The computational power needed to serve ads via programmatic adtech is largely to blame. Ryan Cochrane, chief operating officer of global adtech platform Good-Loop, estimates that the ecosystem handles 2,000 times more bids than the New York Stock Exchange on any given day – 8tn transactions. Auction-based adtech means that hundreds of brands could be bidding to reach a web user profile in any given online ad. And heavy internet users could see thousands of ads per day, many of which still aren’t relevant even after targeting efforts. Cochrane states that the internet represents almost 4% of emissions today (more than the pre-Covid-19 airline industry), and is set to double in five years. The foundation of adtech that the internet is built on will be a large contributor to this.

But agencies are starting to understand the impact – or they are starting to pay attention to it... the industry is now calculating the cost of accounts accumulatively worth billions of pounds. It is now collaborating on an unprecedented scale to offset the impact – because it has to.

What is ‘net zero’?

An industry-wide initiative in the UK, the Advertising Association’s Ad Net Zero launched in 2020. It‘s guided the ad industry to use carbon as the currency of media supply sustainability and has unified top stakeholders to reduce carbon output by at least 25% by 2025. It is backed by the IPA, the Advertising Association and ISBA, as well as top agencies, and clients now intend to hit net-zero carbon emissions by 2030. It‘s got the industry talking. And worrying. But has it got them understanding? Climate language can be confusing.

Net zero in the context of the climate crisis refers to the theoretical amount of carbon offset/output where global warming stops. It‘s defined by The Paris Agreement as “achieving a balance between anthropogenic emissions by sources and removals by sinks of greenhouse gases in the second half of this century.” Environmental crises are already in the post at current levels of carbon dioxide output.

Thankfully, photosynthesis is a keen consumer of CO2. Reforesting and regreening the planet could go a long way to reducing global temperatures to manageable levels. There is a clear opportunity for brands to offset more CO2 than they contribute by simply planting trees – a marketable opportunity for anyone wanting good deeds to impact the bottom line.

Dissecting the language of climate

Language is power and clever use of it will help turn the dial in the battle against climate change. This was acknowledged in 2019 when The Guardian changed its language to more severe terms when addressing the ‘climate disaster.‘ Much of the former language was defined by big energy. For example, BP agency Ogilvy & Mather concocted the ‘carbon footprint‘ – a well-meaning scheme, or an effort to obfuscate the role that big business and government plays in pollution? You decide. Either way, it has overstated the power of the consumer in climate change, who as we know is locked into this cycle of consumption – these are issues we‘re now urgently grappling with 20 years later.

Climate language is nuanced and can be misleading (which the ASA has just started policing in advertising) but there are three very different terms used. These are carbon neutral, net zero and climate neutral. You may have been using them interchangeably, but they greatly vary in how they can combat climate change.

Net zero “is the internationally agreed-upon goal for mitigating global warming in the second half of the century.” It‘s a more ambitious target than ‘carbon neutral,‘ which is often employed to offset only a company‘s carbon output – it‘s lower than the volume we practically need to remove from the atmosphere. Then climate neutrality takes into account all greenhouse gases (although carbon is the main cause).

For most agencies, focusing on carbon makes sense. BP‘s concept of the carbon footprint has been long established as the currency of climate change.

What’s being offset and why now?

The frequency of freak weather events is rising. Wet places are becoming wetter, dry places are becoming drier. Wildfires and floods are becoming more common.

It’s believed that the biggest contributors to these disasters, chiefly huge businesses with huge pollution footprints, could be in for a backlash if they don’t change their ways (as well as their duties to being good global citizens).

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has noted that we’ve seen “unprecedented” climate change, much of which is “irreversible.” The goal now is to “limit climate change” – not stop it. The IPCC says it could take 20-30 years to see global temperatures stabilize.

It believes that emissions of greenhouse gases from human activities are responsible for approximately 1.1°C of warming since 1850-1900. On the projected output of the next 20 years, we will exceed 1.5°C of warming – past that point, we will see “increasing heat waves, longer warm seasons and shorter cold seasons. Then at 2°C of global warming, heat extremes would more often reach critical tolerance thresholds for agriculture and health.”

So it is clear – action needs to be taken and net-zero carbon is a good starting point. Read more here.

The Drum will explore the pros and cons of net zero and how the industry is trying to improve its sustainable media use during the week of Cop26.

Brand Strategy Climate Crisis Cop26

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