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Using tech to be environmentally friendly

HIROKO TABUCHI, INYT, Dec 24 2017, 21:36 IST
Hiroko Tabuchi, an environmental reporter for The New York Times, uses the Haze Today app in New York, Dec. 18, 2017. The Haze Today app tracks the air quality index of locations around the world in real time. (Jeenah Moon/The New York Times)

Hiroko Tabuchi, an environmental reporter for The New York Times, uses the Haze Today app in New York, Dec. 18, 2017. The Haze Today app tracks the air quality index of locations around the world in real time. (Jeenah Moon/The New York Times)

How do New York Times journalists use technology in their jobs and in their personal lives? Hiroko Tabuchi, a climate and environment reporter for The Times, discussed the tech she's using.

Q: What are your most important tech tools for doing your job?

Being conscious of my carbon footprint, and what's in the environment around me, is a prerequisite to covering my beat - and there are several good apps for that.

The CO2 app from the International Civil Aviation Organization gives a good estimate of how much greenhouse gas emissions I cause by flying. For example, I'm flying to Arizona for a reporting assignment. The app tells me that a small commercial flight from New York to Phoenix and back burns about 13,150 kilograms of fuel, which comes to an average CO2 footprint per passenger of almost 500 kilograms - that's more than an average car emits in a month. There's also a great app called Haze Today, which tracks the air quality index in real time - that's ground-level ozone, particle pollution, carbon monoxide, sulfur dioxide and nitrogen dioxide, all of which can affect your health. The index rates most winter days in New York as "healthy" - but in the summer, you see the index start to creep up into the "moderate" and "unhealthy" ranges. It also becomes clear from the app that air pollution is much worse every day in California. I wrote earlier this year about why that has made California the leader on environmental policy. It's a necessity for the state.

Incidentally, Haze Today covers the entire world, and it's sobering to track air pollution levels in countries like China and India, where coal power is more prevalent and the air quality index is perpetually stuck in the "unhealthy" or "very unhealthy" range.

As for gadgets, ever since I covered the Fukushima nuclear crisis in 2011, a mini-Geiger counter, which measures radiation exposure, has been part of my reporter's tool kit. It's amazing how the crisis spurred Geiger counter technology. In the early days of the accident at the Fukushima plant, we paid hundreds of dollars to buy Russian-made counters; now Japanese electronics companies make really cheap ones that look like thermometers.

Q: Big tech companies have a major impact on the environment. How do you think they are doing, and what are the implications for the rest of us?

One of the tech companies' biggest environmental footprints comes from the enormous centers that store and process the data that powers their operations - and there has been research to suggest that some tech giants may be underestimating the amount of energy they consume. Data centers also use lots of water to cool their hard-working server computers. I think there has been a lot of progress among the tech giants to address these issues, and most companies have some sort of commitment to powering more of their energy needs with renewables.

Of course, you can also shrink your own data carbon footprint with really simple steps, like remembering to turn off your work computer at the end of the day. I'm still surprised by how many computer and TV screens are on in our own Times building at night and over the weekend.

Q: What tech product are you currently obsessed with using in your daily life?

I'm a public transportation nerd and use travel-related apps a lot. My favorite is Exit Strategy, which tells you which subway car you need to be in to make sure you get off right by the exit you need. You would be surprised at how much time and stress that can save you.

We also use buses a lot where we live in Brooklyn, so I use the MTA Bus app, which is much more accurate than services like Google Maps.

I also love podcasts. With a good podcast, like Michael Barbaro's The Daily or the S-Town podcast from "This American Life," it's easy to tune everything out.

Q: What could be better about any of your favourite transit apps?

Google Maps is a major headache for me. It just doesn't integrate with New York City Transit very well. So it might suggest a route on a train that's shut down for maintenance, for example. If Google Maps was better at flagging even just scheduled maintenance, the subways and buses here would be so much easier to navigate. I tweet about transit woes a lot, but it's because I believe in the importance of public transportation. It lies at the heart of any vibrant city.

Q: What are some simple tweaks people can make in their tech lives to be more environmentally responsible?

There are a couple of apps and services that can help you both be environmentally responsible and protect your health. GoodGuide lets you scan products in the store to look up ingredients and see overall product ratings based on health or environmental impacts. Apps like Oroeco let you track your daily carbon footprint and turn it into a game, making suggestions on how to do better. Another area to think about from an environmental perspective is e-commerce. Most online shoppers have probably wondered what the impact of all those deliveries, and all that cardboard, might be.

I'm the first to admit that I probably couldn't live without e-commerce, but there are simple things that can help reduce your environmental impact. For example: Do you really need your new headphones and external batteries overnight? Express delivery options can add to e-commerce's footprint, because shipments might be sent in multiple packages from various locations to meet a rushed order.

But from a carbon perspective, driving to and from the store can be even worse. That's often more emissions-intensive than any other leg of that product's journey. Delivery services, on the other hand, transport in bulk and tend to find the most efficient routes, keeping their fuel costs and emissions down.

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