Digital Emissions: What are they, and how big is the problem?

May 15, 2024
2 min read
Digital Emissions: What are they, and how big is the problem?Digital Emissions: What are they, and how big is the problem?

In an increasingly digital world, digital carbon emissions—also known as the digital carbon footprint—have grown to be a serious problem. They occur due to energy usage from digital technology and services, including internet access, data storage, and streaming services, all of which demand a significant amount of energy to power. Digital adverts are a major contributor to this and are now the subject of reduction efforts. These emissions, however, are difficult to measure, which makes it tough for businesses to identify and neutralize them.

Executive Summary


At the same time, global spending on ads is only bound to increase alongside emissions from this sector. While there are standards in place to measure emissions, they are complex to implement credibly and scalably, presenting a problem for companies looking to reduce their emissions from operations.

Head below for a more detailed overview of what digital emissions are and exactly how big the problem is.

The truth about digital emissions

It's no secret that we rely on technology now more than we ever have. From streaming our favorite shows to storing our data, digital infrastructure plays an utterly unavoidable role in our daily lives. The digitization of business operations has significantly increased digital carbon emissions due to massive energy consumption. For all companies worldwide, reducing the digital carbon footprint isn't just the responsible thing to do – it's becoming a must to stay competitive in a world that values sustainability and is running out of time.

However, because digital emissions are quite complex, it is difficult not only to reduce them but also to define and visualize them in the first place.

So, to put it simply– Digital carbon emissions, also known as digital carbon footprint, refer to the amount of greenhouse gas emissions associated with the use of digital technologies and services, such as internet use, data storage, and streaming services. A massive amount of energy is required to produce, power, and support this digital infrastructure (mainly to keep data centers cool), resulting in emissions.

One of the more complicated things about digital emissions is to visualize their source or simply be able to answer the – where are they coming from?

The source of these emissions can be understood by looking at the different stages of the digital lifecycle, including the production, use, and disposal of digital devices and infrastructure. At each stage, various sources of carbon emissions contribute to the overall carbon footprint of the sector. Interestingly (or concerningly), over half of the distribution is attributed to basic internet usage.

This means– every email, ad, and text has a carbon cost.

How concerning are digital emissions?


You’ll recall that a tremendous amount of energy is required to power the entire internet ecosystem. This is equivalent to the same amount of energy needed to power the entire UK annually.

All in all–The Information and Communication Technology (ICT) industry is estimated to emit around 3.7% of the world’s GHG emissions, on par with civil aviation.

It's worth noting that even seemingly innocuous online activities like sending emails contribute to carbon emissions. For instance, sending spam emails emits 0.3g, while an email with a picture attachment emits 50g, making it evident that nothing on the internet is completely carbon-neutral.

Perhaps the type of activity we must be focussing on is the one that has the most potential to be curbed. Digital advertisements are now bearing the spotlight for reduction. Global ad spending has seen positive growth in the last few years, with the number expected to reach about US$740Bn this year alone. Video advertisements take up a large portion of this budget; as a matter of concern, the video format accounts for about 1% of global GHG emissions.

Emissions from digital ads majorly fall under a category known as Scope 3, which are not under the direct control of reporting companies, and are extremely hard to measure –making it even harder for companies to take accountability and neutralize these emissions.

However, businesses have recognized this as an immediate challenge and have already begun to take steps. Unilever committed to reducing its marketing emissions by 33% in 2020. In 2020, it achieved a 31% reduction in emissions from marketing and advertising. Procter & Gamble and Coca-Cola have also made similar commitments.

Clearly, this is the path to be taken to achieve sustainability goals.

Where are we headed?

Spending on global digital technology is projected to reach $10.2 trillion in the next two years while also doubling the emission contribution of the sector. This compels companies to invest in sustainability efforts and take steps to reduce their carbon footprint.

While the world’s companies with a market capitalization higher than US$ 14Tn have set ambitious net zero targets, fewer than 20% meet the UN’s 5P criteria per the ‘Race to Zero’ campaign. This exposes a big gap in intent and action–especially in the case of digital ads.

It’s important to note that there are many standards and frameworks have been developed to help businesses measure and report their GHG emissions–including the widely adopted Greenhouse Gas Protocol. What companies and sustainability teams need though, are tools built around these standards that can help drive reductions via on-ground interventions allowing businesses to honor their commitments.

Here at Ambee, we’re building exactly that.

Want to understand emissions in-depth?

Ambee is committed to helping businesses face climate change–head-on. Our solutions, products, and work are dedicated to helping anyone and everyone move toward a sustainable future. If you want to empower your team with the right tools for your sustainability journey or wish to understand your emissions in greater detail, feel free to contact our expert here. Book a call

Have questions?
Get in touch!
Request submitted.
Our team will get in touch with you shortly!
Oops! Something went wrong while submitting the form.