Dear EarthTalk: I’m finally ready to make the switch from my old gas guzzler to an electric or plug-in hybrid car. What are the best bang-for-my-buck deals on these newfangled vehicles? — Mickey LaMonte, Boston, MA
With each new model year, automakers continue to expand their offerings of affordable and fun plug-in hybrid and all-electric vehicles. While consumers obviously want these new cars, this year’s phase-in of President Obama’s higher automotive fuel efficiency standards have given automakers another reason to step up the manufacturing of less consumptive vehicles that compete in price with their gas and diesel counterparts. Also, new car buyers can cash in on up to $7,500 in federal tax incentives (and possibly more from their own state — check out the Database of State Incentives for Renewable Energy to find out) to help defray the costs of getting into an EV or plug-in hybrid. What this means is that giving up gas has never been so easy — or cheap.
A case in point is Ford’s redesigned C-Max Energi, a plug-in hybrid that gives drivers a range of up to 500 miles as well as 19 miles of all-electric driving for under $28,000, factoring in the federal tax rebate. Not to be outdone, General Motors’ Chevrolet brand is coming on strong with several of its own affordable EVs and plug-in hybrids. The Spark Electric gets more than 80 miles per charge and can be had for less than $19,000. Chevy fans looking for a beefier engine and torquier ride can opt for the Volt plug-in hybrid, which runs for 380 miles using its gas engine as a generator or 38 miles on electric battery power alone — all for less than $27,000.
Meanwhile, German automakers continue to innovate on the electric vehicle front. BMW’s all-electric I3 EV zooms from zero to 60 in seven quiet seconds and, despite its punky look, drives just like a…Beemer. The all-electric base version of the I3 can be had for around $35,000 and gets drivers 81 miles per charge, but owners can opt to add a small back-up gas engine (for another $4,000) turning the car into a plug-in hybrid with a 150-mile range.
While Volkswagen may be in the dog house with environmentalists, given its diesel emissions cheating scandal, the company is making some amends with the new all-electric version of its zippy sport-tuned hatchback, the e-Golf. Factoring in the federal EV tax credit, customers can drive off in a new e-Golf for less than $23,000 — a great deal on a cutting edge fuel efficient vehicle if there ever was one.
If even that seems like too much money, consider an even smaller electric car. Smart’s FourTwo Coupe is a two-seater, around-town EV that will set you back just $13,000 following the federal tax rebate. Another logical choice is Mitsubishi’s similarly compact I-MiEV for under $16,000.
While all these choices are well and good if you need a car ASAP, those willing to wait until next year might want to hold out for Tesla’s forthcoming Model 3, a sporty all-electric sedan with a 215-mile range. The car will retail for $35,000, meaning that consumers should be able to get it for $27,500 after the federal tax rebate). Tesla is hoping that the solid range, sporty drive train and stylish look might just make the Model 3 the “it” EV on the market when it hits showroom floors in 2017.
Contacts: Database of State Incentives for Renewable Energy, www.dsireusa.org; Smart USA, www.smartusa.com; Tesla Motors, www.teslamotors.com. Photo above: Tesla’s sporty new all-electric Model 3 can go 215 miles per charge and will cost consumers less than $30k after federal tax rebates when it rolls off California production lines in 2017.
Dear EarthTalk: I’m tired of binge-watching dramas on Netflix. What are some of the best environmental documentaries that have come out recently? — Scott Andersen, Joplin, MO
While potent in its day as the film that put climate change on the public radar, An Inconvenient Truth, now a decade old, is hardly the last word in green documentaries anymore. Perhaps that honor will go to Disobedience, a 35-minute paean to how grassroots activism can be the lever that finally topples the dominance of fossil fuels. The film’s producers hope to spark new interest in fighting global warming.
Released on April 30 via hundreds of self-organized watch-parties and dozens of independent cinemas — while hundreds of thousands more viewers stream it for free online — Disobedience includes interviews with some of the most renowned voices in the global discourse around social movements and climate change. Conversations with environmental luminaries including author/activist Bill McKibben and filmmaker and globalization critic Naomi Klein are interwoven with riveting verité footage of everyday people organizing and fighting for a livable climate.
Another new climate-oriented doc is The Cross of the Moment, which producers describe as “a deep-green, deep-time discussion of the environmental crisis…that attempts to connect the dots between Fermi’s Paradox, climate change, capitalism and collapse.” The 80-minute film, available for free streaming on Vimeo, features interviews with top scientists and public intellectuals woven together into a narrative that critics praise as “challenging, exhausting and unflinching.” A host of experts such as doomsday climatologist Guy McPherson and Beat poet and bioregionalism guru Gary Snyder discuss humanity’s prospects for surviving catastrophic climate change.
Another solid choice is last year’s Revolution, an epic adventure into the evolution of life on Earth and the revolution to save it. Director Rob Stewart, best known for his award-winning 2008 doc Sharkwater, spent four years and travelled to 15 different countries to produce Revolution, which brings viewers face-to-face with sharks, lemurs, seahorses and cuttlefish among other amazing creatures. Through it all, Stewart stays positive and showcases activists and individuals around the world who are winning the battle to save the ecosystems we all depend on for survival.
Still others include: Fossil Free, which chronicles the mission of impassioned climate activists around the world; Our Rising Oceans, where scientists in Antarctica show us how climate change is already spawning dire consequences; Fractured Earth, in which everyday Pennsylvanians take on Big Oil in trying to keep fracking off their land; and Oil and Water, an examination of the uneasy alliance between the fishing and oil and gas industries in coastal Louisiana.
Meanwhile, a new breed of YouTube-savvy filmmakers is calling into question whether long-form documentaries are still relevant, given viewers’ shorter attention spans and ability to click away in a flash to something more engaging. To wit, activist, artist and filmmaker Jordan Brown (AKA Jore) has released a series of short films on YouTube that focus on the interface between the dominant culture and the real impact on people, society and the environment. His 11-minute piece, Forget Shorter Showers, for instance, lays out the case for why people need to do much more than just take individual actions if they want to save themselves and the planet. Jore argues that only through organizing and working together can we directly challenge the industrial systems leading us down the path to planetary destruction.
Dear EarthTalk: How can I tell if the green certifications and labels on all kinds of products these days are legitimate or just “greenwashing?” –Paul Bass, New York, NY
As sustainability becomes more mainstream, more and more products today advertise their green credentials — with many displaying third-party certifications on their labels. But how can consumers know which certifications are legit?
Americans’ confidence in green labels reached a low in 2011 when the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) busted “Tested Green” for selling unverified environmental certifications backed up by unqualified “experts” at supposedly independent firms that were actually owned by the same person. Tested Green used its website and mass e-mails to drum up more than 100 customers — and six-figure revenues — falsely claiming to be the “nation’s leading certification program with over 45,000 certifications in the United States.” According to the FTC, the company never tested any of the companies it certified and instead awarded use of its label and a link to a “certification verification page” on its website for any customer willing to spend $189.95 on a “Rapid” certification, or $549.95 for a “Pro” certification.
Tested Green is far from the only such case the FTC has pursued. The agency has investigated thousands of cases of misleading green labeling and works hard to ferret out and shut down offenders. “It’s no secret that consumers want products that are environmentally friendly, and that companies are trying to meet that need,” says Jessica Rich, director of the FTC’s Bureau of Consumer Protection. “But companies that don’t have evidence to support the environmental claims they make about their products erode consumer confidence and undermine those companies that are playing by the rules.”
The FTC also hopes to stem the rising tide of greenwashing through publication of its free Green Guides, which help companies understand the general principles that apply to all environmental marketing claims, how consumers are likely to interpret particular claims and how to substantiate such claims, and how to back up claims to avoid deceiving consumers. First released in 1992 and revised most recently in 2012, the latest version incorporates guidance on the use of third-party certification seals and claims about carbon offsets and “renewable” materials and energy sources.
For their part, consumers should investigate any green certification labels they see on products to ascertain whether or not they are valid. Some of the certifications we know we can all trust include: the federal government’s USDA Organic label for organically produced food; the Energy Star label for energy efficient electronics and appliances; independent agency certifications from Cradle to Cradle for manufacturers; the Rainforest Alliance for coffee and other tropical agricultural goods; the Forest Stewardship Council for timber and wood producers; and the U.S. Green Building Council’s LEED program for construction and building. Perhaps the granddaddy of all third-party eco-certifications is Green Seal, which has certified thousands of businesses, government agencies and nonprofits since its inception in 1989 and essentially started the green labeling movement.
While some regional, industry and proprietary labels may be valid, as well, buyers should be wary of any certifications they haven’t heard of or can’t verify via a quick check online. One way to find out if an eco label is legit is by checking it out on the Ecolabel Index, the largest global directory of sustainability oriented certification labels, currently tracking 463 ecolabels in 199 countries across 25 industry sectors.
Contacts: FTC Green Guides, www.ftc.gov/news-events/media-resources/truth-advertising/green-guides; Ecolabel Index, www.ecolabelindex.com.