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COP26: Is Programmatic Costing The Earth?

COP26: Is Programmatic Costing The Earth?

With the eyes of the world focused on COP 26, I argue that the industry's most significant area of carbon emissions remains undefined and unmeasured

This week, over 200 world leaders will arrive in Glasgow for COP26 with the aim of keeping the COP21 Paris targets on track.

And, with the world’s attention turning to emission reduction, it’s not surprising to see articles appearing in the trade press on this theme.

This week I’ve read pieces from Amy Williams and Ryan Cochrane and they both raise interesting points.

Amy points to both Mark Read’s recent comments that “demand is off the scale” for ESG-related work, and the decision for some publishers to refuse work related to carbon-intensive brands as indicators of the industry reacting to the climate emergency.

While Ryan makes recommendations for low hanging CO2-fruit that could instantly make the end-to-end supply chain more efficient. And his suggestions that advertisers should reduce creative size and remove custom fonts are all good stuff.

But what’s missing here?

Where is the programmatic supply chain taken into consideration? I can’t be the only one who sees the elephant in the room?

Ryan hints at the issue when reporting that “the internet now represents almost 4% of global emissions [...] more than the global aviation industry—and is reportedly on track to double by 2025.”

In digital advertising, by far the most significant contributor to this 4% is the waste and inefficiency that we all recognise across the AdTech Lumascape. Huge quantities of data are thrown around the programmatic system in every single ad auction. Hundreds of companies in the Lumascape pour energy and carbon into capturing, storing, and processing that data. So why isn’t it being looked at?

As an industry, we’ve set up AdGreen and AdNetZero as initiatives to understand the impact of digital advertising, but neither have yet looked at the digital supply chain.

How can our industry claim to be serious about reducing CO2 when the most significant area of carbon emissions remains undefined and unmeasured?

There are some great initiatives, such as Good Loop’s calculator, which measures the impact of the creatives being transmitted to the end user and displayed. But this is only the tip of the melting iceberg.

What is the impact of those hundreds of AdTech companies in the supply chain, and what can be done if we are going to get our house in order?

First, we need to get amongst this and understand the energy use and carbon impact of the incredible amount of processing that goes on behind the scenes in programmatic. Then we can start to act.

What would that action look like? Publishers can act with good technical controls that limit pre-loading of never-to-be-seen creatives. Brands can act by using good compression and video streaming techniques. And surely, we can find efficiencies amongst the bloated pipes of the AdTech intermediaries.

And hang on. Isn’t there another major driver in our industry that’s seeking to reduce data flow? Aren’t we realising that the days of harvesting consumer data, sharing it around and profiling consumers is gone? It’s socially unacceptable and we’re rapidly realising the compliance risks as the new wave of privacy regulation becomes clearer. Not to mention that browsers are stopping it quickly as well.

Should we be thinking about privacy and sustainability together? If we’re moving away from a world of third-party data and towards one using compliant, first-party data, then doesn’t all that AdTech data trading diminish enormously and, alongside, its energy consumption and carbon impact?

Advertisers have been auditing their supply chain for waste, fraud, and efficiency for years. Isn’t it time to get serious about privacy and carbon, audit our suppliers, and look for new technologies that actively reduce waste?

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