The internet causes 4% of emissions, so can adland decarbonize programmatic buying?

In the lead-up to the 2021 United Nations Climate Change Conference in Glasgow, Ryan Cochrane, chief operating officer of global adtech platform Good-Loop, shares his views on how programmatic media is impacting our planet, and how adland can help cool down the internet.

Governments, businesses, activists and everyone in between will soon be descending upon Glasgow for COP26 to ask how we stop the planet sweating harder than a post-concert crowd at the Scottish Event Campus.

In the run-up, we can expect to be bombarded with messages about how sustainable almost every brand in the world is. Most likely on giant 48 sheets.

Every industry and every company has a role to play. And if recent headlines are anything to go by, they need to do it fast. The often-cited IPCC report confirmed the world’s on fire, and if we want to put it out we’ll need everyone to do their part.

The internet represents almost 4% of emissions today (that’s more than the pre-Covid-19 airline industry), and is set to double in five years.

For adtech, there’s an obvious starting point – programmatic media.

The scale of the problem

There’s no doubt programmatic media – specifically real-time bidding – has revolutionized advertising. It’s helped publishers monetize each and every view of a page, and kept our internet free and diverse – all through the power of a simple auction. However, while an auction is the fairest way to transact media, it’s also inherently inefficient.

To give you an idea of the scale of the issue, the NYSE processes 3-6bn transactions per day. In a single day in programmatic, it’s, according to best estimates, around 8tn. That’s 2,000x the volume of bid requests and auctions.

Each and every ad auction requires some level of computing power – even if it’s to get outbid for a banner no human will ever see. And if you win, the carbon cost multiplies. Collectively, we’re burning tiny fires trillions of times, every day, courtesy of the programmatic ecosystem.

So what can we do to reduce programmatic’s size 14 carbon footprint?

Scrub the supply path

Over the last few years, supply path optimization (SPO) has been high on the priority list for programmatic advertisers – consolidating relationships and improving performance along the way. It’s time to look at a new phase of this around green energy – only utilizing publishers, tech vendors and suppliers that can evidence utilizing renewable energy. It’s vital advertisers use their budgets to incentivize the supply chain to change.

Bigger ≠ better

Having ensured the path is as clean as it can be, we must then focus on the ad itself. Every kb that a reader’s device has to load on a page uses power.

As such, creative teams must compress file sizes as much as possible. For example, at Good-Loop we’ve been able to compress files as much as 85% without losing meaningful quality. Remember your asset will be shown in a relatively small digital box, not a giant billboard – you don’t need that ultra HD file.

We then need to consider the formats and devices where the ads will run – this is especially true for emerging popular formats such as connected TV (CTV).

It’s highly unlikely the energy efficiency of a viewer’s TV was top of the list when they bought it – and in sheer pixel size, it’s the biggest digital ad you’ll likely ever run that isn’t a digital billboard.

As such, that makes it the most carbon-intensive. As the growth of this channel continues, broadcasters and advertisers must apply pressure on manufacturers to improve product efficiency.

Mandate to curate

As fears over inventory quality and the much-publicized ‘decline of the cookie’ grow, advertisers have moved closer to publishers again in a bid to improve ad quality and optimize supply paths. In turn, the quality of inventory that remains on the open web can be expected to decline.

Surfacing large quantities of inventory through open auctions increases the computing requirements to process. Advertisers should seize this opportunity to migrate from the open exchange and focus on curated private marketplace lists and programmatic guarantee deals.

There are savings, both for the budget and planet, that can be made here – it enables better conversations with publishers regarding rates, and requires significantly less energy to deliver a high-quality campaign while also ensuring the supply chain stays clean.

Accept the problem

Changes in our approach to internet carbon have the potential to make a demonstrable difference in our fight against climate change – both in removing our own footprints and influencing others to do the same.

Adland must accept that it has played a part in creating the climate crisis – we run and operate the attention economy, focused on driving consumer behavior and creating wants and desires.

That’s not in itself a bad thing. But if we want to get serious about cleaning up our society, advertising is the pointy end of the spear – it’s how our biggest businesses in the world engage with the world at large.

It’s time to plant seeds, not pull up trees.