WTF are sustainability scopes?

This article is a WTF explainer, in which we break down media and marketing’s most confusing terms. More from the series →

Publishers, advertisers and agencies alike have set some lofty goals when it comes to reducing their carbon footprints. In many cases, however, companies are still trying to get an exact measurement of how much carbon is emitted from their day-to-day operations to begin with.  

There are three layers (or scopes) that are used to classify businesses’ carbon emissions: scope one, scope two and scope three. Each layer focuses on the carbon created directly from a business, indirectly from a third-party source that creates power for the company or from all the other intermediaries and stakeholders that are involved in the output of the company.

For many sustainability-minded executives, there may be more to their carbon output than they even realize. 

“The plumbing of digital [advertising] is vast in terms of [carbon emissions] and it’s not as visible as a magazine showing up in your mailbox delivered by the USPS person,” said David Carey, svp of public affairs and communications at Hearst, who oversees the company’s sustainability efforts. “There’s a lot of people involved between the advertiser and the consumer, who all get a little slice of revenue, and that revenue has emissions that are associated.”

WTF is scope one? 

Scope one is probably the easiest layer for companies to measure. It looks at how much carbon dioxide is produced from a company’s immediate operations.

This measures direct emissions from:

  • The natural gas used to heat an office building
  • The gasoline used to power a fleet of delivery vehicles
  • The amount of waste produced and disposed of from an office building
  • Other combustible fuels used to power owned-and-operated facilities and machinery

In the 2022 Hearst Sustainability Overview report, which was published in November, scope one was the publisher’s smallest category of carbon emissions. For full-year 2021, Hearst’s facilities in the U.S. and U.K. produced about 4,300 metric tons of CO2e (the abbreviation for carbon dioxide equivalent, which is the combination of the pollutants that contribute to climate change, adjusted to include their global warming potential). Hearst’s measurement in this category is still being fully mapped out across its 504 total facilities around the world. 

“It took us a year to get [this] data because it was really a bear. We have 500 offices, thousands of meters and enormous amounts of data to ingest,” said Carey. 

Comparatively, Axel Springer’s 2021 Sustainability Report, which was published in April 2022, reported its scope one emissions to be 4,559 metric tons of CO2e that fiscal year.

WTF is scope two?

Scope two measures a company’s indirect emissions, or the fuel consumed off-site that ultimately creates the power for a company. It’s mostly electricity-based. 

This measures emissions from:

  • The fuel used to create the electricity that’s purchased and used by a company
  • The fuel used to power the grid that the company’s office is hooked up to

Hearst’s 2021 scope two output was 53,800 CO2e, per its sustainability report. Meanwhile, Axel Springer’s 2021 scope two emissions totaled 14,726 CO2e, according to its report. 

This category is also largely based on the geographies in which each office is located and can vary widely even within a single company. For example, while one office within an organization may be located in a region whose central grid is powered by renewable resources (like wind, water or solar), another office within that same organization could be based in a region that uses coal to power its electric grid, which in turn produces substantially more carbon emissions than a renewable resource.

WTF is scope three?

“Scope three is everything else,” according to Carey, who added that upwards of 80% to 90% of most businesses’ carbon emissions comes from the scope three category. So it’s almost easier to say what’s not considered to be scope three. In short, scope three spans all emissions beyond those related to powering a company’s own physical operations.

This measures emissions from categories including, but not limited to:

  • Employee commutes and business travel
  • Third-party delivery services
  • Third-party factories that manufacture a product or print a magazine
  • A company’s role in the digital advertising ecosystem
    • And therefore, the energy powering a consumer’s electronic device that’s enabling them to view the company’s ad

Axel Springer reported its total scope three emissions in 2021 were 332,813 metric tons of CO2e. Hearst is not currently reporting its total scope three emissions, as Carey said his team is still in the process of identifying and measuring all of the contributors to this category.

“[We] don’t have all the tools needed to capture that with good accuracy, but we think that they’re coming,” said Carey. 

How are emissions measured? 

While electric companies and natural gas providers often put meters directly on buildings to measure how much fuel is used and bill for explicit amounts, there isn’t one company that can provide the data for all of a company’s scope three emissions. 

“You need different technology tools that help you,” said Carey, who added that Hearst has signed deals with several measurement platforms to help paint a clear picture of where the company’s scope three emissions are coming from, including Salesforce’s Net Zero Cloud.

There are several sustainability measurement firms and third-party vendors already on the market that are measuring the carbon emissions from specific areas within a company’s operations. 

Hearst uses a platform called Concur to book and record its corporate business travel, and that service has started measuring emissions associated with flights, hotel stays and taxi rides, said Carey. Quad Graphics, which prints the majority of physical magazines in the U.S., also provides emissions metrics from that end of the business. 

Other companies, like carbon emission measurement firm Scope3, measure how much carbon is created in the digital advertising market. 

How much of an impact can a company’s carbon footprint really have? 

Let’s take a closer look at one, rather substantial, contributor within the scope three category — digital advertising — to get a better understanding. 

The digital ad market alone can make up as much as 25% of a company’s scope three emissions, according to Anne Coghlan, COO of Scope3, who works with digital media players like Insider, Vox Media and DoubleVerify.

But let’s break it down in more tangible terms, per Scope3’s The State of Sustainable Advertising Q1 2023 report

  • Programmatic advertising creates 100,000 metric tons of carbon dioxide every month in the United States, which is equivalent to burning about 11.2 million gallons of gas. 
  • Serving 1,000 digital ad impressions uses the same amount of energy as doing a load of laundry in a washing machine — excluding the dryer — which produces a global average of 514.8 grams of CO2.
  • A publisher’s average carbon emissions per 1,000 impressions can range between 187 to 1,772 gCO2PM (or grams of carbon dioxide per mille).
  • The top 10% of worst offending domaines (meaning publishers on the upper end of that range, between 950 to 1,772 gCO2PM) emit 33,500 metric tons of CO2e per month across the United States, Great Britain, France, Germany and Australia. That’s the same amount of carbon pollution produced from driving a car 86 million miles. 
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