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Group M launches framework to measure ad-based emissions

© Shutterstock / T. SchneiderGroupM's tool to measure ad based emissions.

GroupM, WPP’s media investment arm, has launched a new framework for the measurement of ad-based carbon emissions. A positive step, or a side-stepping of responsibility?

  • GroupM launches emissions framework for advertising, helping corporates with Scope 3.
  • The framework approach is supposed to contribute to parent WPP’s net zero target but how is unclear.
  • Bigger questions about how long fossil fuel companies will be allowed to advertise are starting to be asked, and when tobacco style restrictions may come in.

What is the advertising industry doing about emissions?

2020 saw the launch of Advertising Association (AA)’s Ad Net Zero report, which was the first step towards coordinating a collective response from the UK ad industry about how to address emissions within the supply chain. It also saw the launch of the AA’s Media Agency Climate Action Group of which WPP was a member.

The report set out a 5-point action plan for the entire industry, from creative and media agencies to media owners, to help the development, production and media placement of advertising achieve real net zero by 2030. The group now counts over 100 advertisers, agencies, commercial media owners and production companies in its membership.

June 2022 saw the announcement of the new Ad Net Zero Global Group at Cannes Lions, where it was agreed to explore how this approach can be scaled right across the industry. Existing partners from the UK are partners in the global coalition and are committed to build plans to extend Ad Net Zero into other major markets. What has been harder to find have been concrete actions.

WPP and its own net zero commitments

WPP has committed to reaching net zero across its direct operations (Scopes 1 and 2) by 2025 and its value chain (Scope 3) by 2030. This commitment includes the media GroupM buys on behalf of its clients, which collectively account for more than 50% of WPP’s total emissions.

These goals are underpinned by carbon reduction targets that are in line with the Paris Climate Agreement and verified by the Science Based Targets initiative (SBTi). The company has near-term targets, with a goal of reducing absolute Scope 1 and 2 emissions by at least 84% by 2025 and absolute Scope 3 emissions by at least 50% by 2030, both from a 2019 base year.

How will GroupM’s methodology work?

WPP says it is working to develop the technology and standards that can be used to measure and reduce emissions from advertising globally. As part of that effort, GroupM commissioned research from independent specialists in carbon measurement to help create a robust methodology for accurately measuring emissions across the media supply chain.

Once created, the lifecycle assessment methodologies of media channels should allow a new carbon calculator to be built, which could serve anyone in the industry willing to set absolute emissions reduction targets and build in vendor-level data where available.

“Our clients want to prioritise media investment with publishers and platforms that are actively decarbonising their media supply,” said Christian Juhl, GroupM’s Global CEO. “While we applaud the many steps taken to quantify ad-based carbon emissions in recent years, having different standards across companies, platforms, and markets is delaying meaningful action. By sharing this global framework, we hope to begin aligning our industry behind a consistent set of standards that will create clear goals and incentives for rapidly decarbonising the media supply chain.”

To encourage the establishment of industry-wide standards for carbon measurement across channels and formats, GroupM has said that it will share its framework and best practice for lowering emissions with industry bodies and organisations committing to a science-based emissions reduction target. The framework, Calculating a Cleaner Future Now: A Unified Methodology for Accelerated Media Decarbonization, can be downloaded from the WPP site.

Why do we need a new emissions calculator?

While several such emissions calculators exist, most agree that they do not use consistent parameters, baselines or methodological approaches, which makes it hard to compare like for like and means that both estimates and offset calculations can be both broad and vague.

The first step is to agree on consistent industry application of the Greenhouse Gas Protocol (GHGP). This will expand the amount of carbon accounted for versus current calculators and will enable accurate carbon accounting through a transparent calculation methodology. This will then be introduced as part of the media planning process.

The idea is that by being able to compare like for like, clients will be able to move their media investment to lower emissions publishers and platforms. The company has said that it hopes to have the calculator in place by Q4 2022.

What the ad industry lacks overall is an aligned reduction plan. Jérôme Amouyal, Media Performance Insights Director, AXA, said: “It is important that we as a collective get behind a robust, actionable solution that accelerates decarbonisation. We believe that market approaches such as GroupM’s will lead the way in educating, informing and enabling vital change in the industry. ”

The elephant in the room: why are advertisers promoting fossil fuels?

There are however important questions as to whether the power of advertising should be limited to the measurement of the emissions associated with advertising, or the type of advertising the agency undertakes.

This is of growing interest as regulations around advertising for fossil fuel companies start to come into play. France recently announced that oil company advertising would be banned, like the approach initially taken to tobacco advertising.

Jake Carbone, who is a Program Manager at NGO InfluenceMap working on digital advertising said:

“Any move to genuinely decarbonise business activities is a positive step. GroupM’s announcement is a further sign of the growing concern within the advertising industry about its impact on climate change. However, the framework doesn’t appear to cover the largest impact of digital advertising – the messages delivered by the ads themselves.”

He continued, “The advertising industry has an enormous influence on people’s buying behaviours and perceptions of a company, some of which are actively involved in lobbying to slow the pace of climate action. Fossil fuel intensive industries often use advertising to sway climate policy decisions by governments, which potentially contributes significantly to their indirect carbon footprint – or ‘carbon policy footprint’.  Advertising agencies have the power to change this, as some have demonstrated through the Clean Creatives initiative.”

Refusing contracts with fossil fuel companies

Clean Creatives is an industry group that believes that fossil fuel companies are ultimately driving the climate crisis and has launched a pledge that commits agencies, creatives and strategists to refuse contracts with fossil fuel companies, trade associations or front groups. It even offers an opportunity for clients to commit to not working with agencies that take fossil fuel funds.

In many ways what we seem to be seeing today is the beginning of the path taken by the tobacco industry over the last eighty years. Given the short-term frame that we must take action on climate change, it’s unlikely that the fossil fuel industry will have the same period of grace.

Of course the importance of energy to the economy does make a difference in terms of how politicians are likely to respond. But as extreme weather events increase and consumers and voters start feeling the bite in pricing from energy to food and water, pressure to act on the fossil fuel industry is likely to increase – and the advertising industry might be right in regulators eyeline when it comes to being seen to act.

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