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Brand Purpose Greenwashing Agency Models

Advertising adds extra 32% to annual carbon footprint of every person in the UK


By Ellen Ormesher, Senior Reporter

November 7, 2022 | 9 min read

Latest research from Purpose Disruptors paints a stark picture of the C02 emissions caused as a result of advertising-driven consumption.

Shopping street

Advertised Emissions in the UK were responsible for 22m metric tons of C02e between 2019 and 2022 / Unsplash

A report by advertising climate network Purpose Disruptors, written in collaboration with econometrics agency Magic Numbers, reveals that emissions driven by advertising (’advertised emissions’) have increased by 11% between 2019 and 2022.

Advertised Emissions: The Temperature Check 2022 is to be presented at Cop27 and concludes that the industry urgently needs to account for both operational and advertised emissions to be in line with the IPCC science targets of halving emissions by 2030 and in order to mitigate the worst impacts of climate change.

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What are advertised emissions?

Advertised emissions are defined as the uplift in greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions that result from the increase in sales generated by advertising. The methodology is based on ‘financed emissions’ – a system utilized by the finance industry to measure the full impact of its investments.

Last year, at Cop26 in Glasgow, Purpose Disruptors launched its landmark report, which revealed that the advertised emissions from the UK advertising industry added more than 186m metric tons of CO2 to our atmosphere in 2019 – the equivalent of adding an extra 28% to the annual carbon footprint of every single person in the country.

The concept is currently gaining global traction as a tool for driving awareness of the impact of advertising on the acceleration of the climate emergency. In June this year, the concept was adopted as Leadership Practice by the UNFCCC Race to Zero for its member organizations. Race to Zero is the largest-ever alliance committed to achieving net zero carbon emissions by 2050 at the latest. Representing 50% of global GDP, Race to Zero members include WPP, Dentsu, IPG, Havas (London) and Publicis.

The invitation to present the updated advertised emissions report at Cop27 in Egypt will continue to highlight, on the global stage, the important role advertising can play in addressing unsustainable consumption.

What is the current situation?

The new report shows that the industry successfully reduced its advertised emissions by 22% in 2020, to 145m metric tons of CO2, putting it ahead of what’s required to be on track to halve emissions by 2030.

However, in 2021, as the industry returned to pre-lockdown conditions, advertised emissions rose back to the same level as 2019. Most alarmingly, the 2022 trend has been forecast to rise to 208m metric tons of CO2e – an increase of 12% (figure 1). This increase means that the UK advertising industry has grown its contribution to every citizen’s carbon footprint from 28% in 2019 to 32% in 2022. The increase of 22m metric tons of CO2e between 2019 to 2022 is the equivalent to running an extra nine coal-fired power plants for a year.

Purpose Disruptors chart

Figure 1 - Advertised Emissions actual and forecasted 2019 - 2030

What impact will this have?

Purpose Disruptors says this rise is directly at odds with what the latest climate reports state is necessary for a safe and livable future. A series of sobering reports released last week from the UNEP and the UNFCCC assessed climate progress ahead of Cop27. These outlined that, globally, we are not on track to keep global warming within a 1.5°C temperature rise – a critical goal set by the IPCC. Global emissions need to decline 46% by 2030, but instead they are set to rise by 10%.

There is currently “no credible pathway to 1.5°C in place,” while “woefully inadequate” progress on cutting carbon emissions means the only way to limit the worst impacts of the climate crisis is a “rapid transformation of societies,” say the UNEP and UNFCCC reports.

Dr Grace Kite, founder and economist at Magic Numbers, says: “This year’s advertised emissions report doesn’t necessarily make for happy reading, but that makes it all the more important for advertisers and agencies to sit up and take notice. It’s all very much ’business as usual’ at the moment, and rather than being on track for the 50% reduction we need by 2030, advertised emissions are at record highs. We need to do better and this report draws a line in the sand.“

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What is being done?

Progress has been made by the industry to reduce its operational carbon footprint, led by initiatives such as Ad Net Zero. However, Purpose Disruptors is now calling on the industry to take full responsibility for its climate impact by addressing the role of consumption in society.

Presently, the operational footprint of the industry is estimated to be 1m metric tons of CO2 emissions, according to the Ad Net Zero Report published by the Advertising Association in 2020. The new advertised emissions report shows that this is 208 times smaller than emissions that result from the increase in sales generated by advertising.

While it is clear that the industry is committed to helping address our climate emergency, the new data shows how severe and urgent the change is that’s required. To ensure the advertising industry acts with integrity and takes full responsibility for its climate impact, it must measure and reduce its advertised emissions.

Jonathan Wise, co-founder of Purpose Disruptors, says that the updated report outlines exactly how much advertised emissions are increasing, just as the climate emergency worsens. “This report will provide the necessary stimulus to talk about the elephant in the room: advertising drives consumption and consumption drives carbon emissions,” he says.

“We invite people in the industry who worry about climate to ask themselves and their colleagues this question: ‘Are we serious about helping to tackle our climate emergency and, if so, how are we going to reduce our advertised emissions?’ The people who ask this question are the leaders the industry needs right now.”

Purpose Disruptors hopes the findings will move the industry away from measuring only the baseline emissions associated with running an advertising business to the emissions associated with its output.

In addition to using advertised emissions as its primary measurement metric, the group has also called on the ad industry to take further action to reduce its impact on the environment. It wants brands to reduce spending and advertising on high-carbon businesses and for agencies to reallocate skills away from promoting high-carbon consumer choices to lower-carbon ones.

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