The 2018 fire season in California was one of the most deadly and destructive on record. Some 8,527 fires burned 1,893,913 acres, destroying homes, businesses, lives and even whole communities. Our climate demanded action; it was a demand that Pasadena-based OpenX decided to heed. 

That year we launched, “OpenX Path to Net-Zero,” a comprehensive and ongoing initiative to protect our planet. We wanted to demonstrate to the digital ad-tech industry that change is possible; that we can continue to build a business we love while shrinking our carbon footprint.

Today we are proud to say that OpenX is independently certified as a carbon neutral enterprise. We’ve reduced our greenhouse gas emissions by 90%. And we’re not done. We’ve set our sights on the highest environmental achievement possible: Net-Zero Carbon. Certified, net zero, that is.

Recently, OpenX became a signatory of the Science Based Targets initiative (SBTi) and we’ve committed to becoming a “Net-Zero” enterprise by the end of 2022 (much sooner than the 2030 and 2050 targets most companies have set).

While it’s easy for companies to achieve “carbon neutral” status by simply offsetting their existing emissions, the SBTi Net-Zero Standard calls BS on that approach. This standard requires companies to reduce their emissions by more than 90% and only then offset the residual emissions through verified carbon removal offsets

“Business must play a lead role in addressing climate change and creating a more sustainable future for all stakeholders, including people and the planet,” said John Gentry, chief executive officer of OpenX. “Creating this future requires innovation, which is how OpenX has been built and which has characterized our approach to this critical and necessary goal.

Going through this exercise was a transformational experience for OpenX as a company, and for our employees individually. We’d like to take this opportunity to share our experience, and how it changed us. If there is one thing we learned it is this: meaningful change is not only possible, it is richly rewarding.

The Internet’s Dirty Secret: It’s a Carbon Hog

To many people, the Internet felt like an anti-polluter, a way to reduce paper production, consumption and waste by replacing it with bytes that simply disappear when we’re done reading an article.

(It’s worth noting that automobiles were seen as a solution to the pollution created by horses.)

But as it turns out, the Internet is a massive polluter, and it accounts for as much as 3.5% of global CO2 emissions. According to a study by the Boston Consulting Group, “the internet is responsible for roughly one billion tonnes of greenhouse gasses a year.”

The global IT sector uses an astounding amount of electricity. In fact, it produces more carbon than any other countries except the U.S. and China. To put that in perspective, the Internet has a carbon footprint that’s on par with the airline industry.

The digital ad-tech sector thrives on data, as anyone in the business can attest. But 30% of the internet’s pollution is due to data transfer alone. Worse, it’s expected to increase by 44x by 2030. Consider this: at least 1kg of CO2 is emitted for each gigabyte of data transferred.

Closer to home, ad exchanges are the biggest users of energy in the ecosystem. We felt obligated to change that, and took it upon ourselves to pioneer a path forward.

What We Talk About When We Talk About Carbon

The terms surrounding carbon reduction can be confusing. Let’s start with a definition of what they mean:

  • Carbon neutral means that any CO2 released into the atmosphere as a result of a company’s activities is balanced by an equivalent amount being removed via carbon offsets.
  • Carbon offsets compensate for the emissions released by a company like OpenX by funding an equivalent CO2-reduction project, such as reforestation, that works to remove carbon from the atmosphere.  
  • Net zero carbon means making changes to reduce carbon emissions to the lowest amount – and offsetting as a last resort.

Carbon Scopes

If you follow carbon initiatives, you probably heard people talk about Scope 1, Scope 2 and Scope 3. What’s that about?

The scopes come from the Greenhouse Gas Protocol, which provides “requirements and guidance for companies and other organizations preparing a corporate-level GHG emissions inventory.”

  • Scope 1: these are emissions the come directly from company-owned and controlled resources
  • Scope 2: there are indirect emissions from the generation of purchased energy, from a utility provider.
  • Scope 3: these are all indirect emissions that occur in the value chain of the reporting company

For publishers and brands, Scope 3 may become super important by the end of the year, as the SEC has proposed rules to enhance and standardize climate-related disclosures. Specifically, a proposed Scope 3 rule says, “a registrant would be required to disclose GHG emissions from upstream and downstream activities in its value chain.” 

That means if you’re a brand and you launch a 3 million-impression brand awareness campaign, you will need to inform your investors how much carbon that campaign released into the atmosphere. Ditto for publishers that sell digital ads

(Here’s an easy way to comply with the rules should they pass: advertise with OpenX. We’ve already done the accounting work, so we can tell you precisely how much emissions your campaign generates: zero. Challenge solved!)

OpenX Scopes 1 and 2 have lowered our carbon emission from 4,073 metric tons in 2018, to 167.25 metric tons in 2021. That’s a 95% reduction! 

OpenX Path to Net -Zero

“OpenX Path to Net-Zero” is an initiative that we believe confirms our place at the forefront of the digital advertising industry. Today we are certified as a CarbonNeutral® company by Climate Impact Partners, but it’s just the most recent step in a long-term sustainability strategy that we’ve launched.

We reached our first major milestone in 2019, when we became the first and only independent cloud-native ad exchange. That year we migrated our entire technology infrastructure to the Google Cloud Platform, which is carbon neutral. This migration allowed us to operate our ad exchange with far more computing power and energy efficiency. In fact, it reduced our carbon footprint by more than 90 percent. 

“In becoming the first independent ad exchange to migrate its entire tech infrastructure to the cloud, OpenX acted with foresight and urgency,” said Janet Kennedy, vice president, North America Regions, for the Google Cloud. “We’ve worked closely with the company during the last two years to maximize both the business and sustainability benefits of the Google Cloud Platform, and we will continue supporting OpenX’s leadership in this critical endeavor.”

OpenX used the migration as an opportunity to upgrade and optimize every aspect of our infrastructure. In addition to becoming carbon neutral, we now offer our clients even better service. For this reason, we view our planet-saving initiative a resounding success.

“The GCP migration was a great decision. It just didn’t make sense to have all of our infrastructure on premise generating so much carbon waste,” Edith Raes, VP of  Quality Engineering & Strategic Initiatives at OpenX, explained. “And GCP has a carbon emissions calculator, which helps us calculate how much carbon our infrastructure generates to deliver service. It is still in beta, but it was super helpful.”

OpenX also engaged Bill Wescott, managing partner of BrainOxygen. Bill has been a leader in innovation, sustainable development, climate change, and the circular economy for over three decades. “Bill helped create and implement our ‘Path to Net-Zero’ strategy,” explained Edith. “He’s been a real godsend.”

But as we mentioned, this is a journey, not a one-and-done initiative. Yes, we became a signatory of the Science Based Targets initiative (SBTi), and we currently meet SBTi’s “Net-Zero” guidance, but we have more work to do

For instance, we will continue to examine every aspect of our infrastructure, physical spaces and work tools with an eye for energy efficiency and carbon reduction. Our impact on climate will forever be part of our calculus.

“We are fully aligned with the climate goals and commitments of our customers and partners, while making it easy for them to report how they are improving every aspect of their value chain,” notes Mr. Gentry. “At the same time, we’ll urge other exchanges and platforms to follow our lead. Being carbon neutral by simply purchasing cheap carbon credits and continuing business as usual is not enough. That is why OpenX has set the bar high in becoming a ‘Net-Zero’ company.”

Interestingly, this initiative has had a transformational impact on how our employees think and act, both inside the office and out. Everyone who worked on the project has been sensitized to our everyday activities, and how much carbon they generate. They’re constantly looking for ways to optimize; constantly looking for ways to process more efficiently.

“A lot of times, when engineers want to do more with infrastructure, the default response is to add more machines, add more CPUs, increase memory. Now we ask: instead of adding more, how can we utilize our current infrastructure more efficiently,” Edith said.

It’s an attitude that spills over into product development. Our teams now consider the carbon impact of all new products and services. Carbon emissions have become an important part of OpenX’s product development planning process.

“Sometimes the work we do doesn’t necessarily relate to our lives outside of work. But this is one project that affects us all the time. It’s really about changing the culture and the way we think. And it’s about educating people so that they can start shifting the way they think. The more we’re conscious of the little actions we do on a day-to-day basis, the more we can do to help address the climate crisis. Honestly, it’s something that they should be thinking about all the time,” Edith said. 

This is exactly the sentiment that gave rise to OpenX Path to Net-Zero. 

If you’d like to learn more about our sustainability efforts, contact BuyerDevelopment@openx.com and openx.com/sustainability.