What tax or other government incentives are there out there for buying green — for individuals as well as businesses?

— Sarah Rafferty, New York, NY

There has never been a better time than now to tap into a laundry list of tax rebates and other financial incentives designed to encourage individuals and businesses to go the greener mile. At the federal level in the U.S., individuals can reap the rewards of no less than eight different financial incentives ranging from tax credits and home loans for replacing windows and installing insulation around the house to tax rebates for purchasing a hybrid car or hooking up a solar hot water heater.

Besides these federal incentives, nearly every U.S. state has additional state or local incentives available. Many require utilities to rebate consumers who save electricity. Some utilities even offer “net metering,” whereby consumers who generate some of their power through rooftop solar panels or other technologies can sell electricity back to the utility, thus reducing or zeroing out their electric bill — even earning money.

Many financial incentives are in place for businesses, as well. At the federal level, examples include an energy-efficient commercial buildings tax deduction, a business energy reduction tax credit, an energy-efficient appliance tax credit for manufacturers, and a new energy-efficient tax credit for green-savvy builders.
At the state level, many are eager to attract renewable energy companies to their region and offer tax breaks to get them there. Washington state, for example, charges no sales tax on renewable energy equipment produced or sold there. And some forward-thinking cities are beginning to offer “density bonuses” and green building incentives to developers and builders to encourage sustainable land use.

The best place to look for what’s available is to steer your Web browser to the free online Database of State Incentives for Renewables and Efficiency (DSIRE), a comprehensive source of information on state, local, utility and federal incentives that promote renewable energy and energy efficiency. DSIRE is a federally funded project of the Interstate Renewable Energy Council whose membership includes state and local government agencies, national laboratories, renewable energy companies and advocacy groups.

In Canada, the Office of Energy Efficiency at Natural Resources Canada offers a slate of federal grants and incentives under its ecoENERGY Retrofit program to homeowners, businesses, large industries and public institutions to help them invest in energy- and pollution-saving upgrades. The agency also administers the High Efficiency Home Heating System Cost Relief program, which will contribute up to $300 to homeowners who upgrade their old oil or gas furnace or boiler to a new high-efficiency model. And low-income households might qualify for additional federal financial assistance for energy retrofits. Another Canadian program, the Vehicle Efficiency Incentive (VEI), rewards those who buy fuel-efficient cars or trucks with rebates of up to $2,000 each. Beyond these federal programs, selected provincial and municipal entities across Canada also offer incentives to those looking to save energy and the environment.


Dear EarthTalk: Aside from the obvious benefits to mankind of reducing poverty, how would promoting more economic equality around the world benefit the environment?

—Steele Shapiro, Seattle, WA

Research has shown that in countries with a wide disparity between rich and poor, environmental protection tends to be a lower priority. The inverse is also true: Countries with greater economic equality assign higher priority to safeguarding their environment.

The main determining factor seems to be that lower-income people tend to vote against spending tax dollars on what are deemed costly or discretionary environmental projects. In countries with less disparity between rich and poor, such as throughout Scandinavia, environmental protection is assigned a higher priority, and governments have enacted more stringent regulations and policies accordingly.

University of Rochester researchers Laura Marsiliani and Thomas Renstrom reviewed hundreds of academic studies of linkages between economic equality and environmental protection and found plenty of evidence to suggest that “poorer individuals tend to prefer less stringent environmental policy.” Previous research also supports their hypothesis that greater income inequality causes lower environmental taxes, regulation and spending around the world.

On a related front, a team of McGill University researchers uncovered a connection between growing economic inequality and an increase in the number of plant and animal species threatened with extinction. Dr. Greg Mikkelson of McGill’s School of Environment led the study, which looked at income inequality and biodiversity loss on two different scales: among 45 countries worldwide, and among 45 U.S. states. The researchers found that the same general trend is evident in both cases: Societies with more unequal distribution of income experience greater losses of biodiversity.

While there is often a trade-off between economic growth and environmental quality, says Mikkelson, his study suggests that there is also synergy between removing or reducing poverty and greater conservation of biological diversity. If the U.S. were to achieve levels of income parity comparable, say, to Sweden, some 44 percent fewer plant and animal species in the U.S. would be in danger of extinction. “Our study,” adds Mikkelson, “suggests that if we can learn to share economic resources more fairly with fellow members of our own species, it may help us to share ecological resources more fairly with other species.”

One group working to help the environment by bridging the economic equality gap is the Poverty Reduction and Environmental Management (PREM) program at the Institute for Environmental Studies at Holland’s Vrije Universiteit. Formulated by Dr. Pieter van Beukering and Kim van der Leeuw, the program has lined up researchers in 16 developing nations to develop case studies showing how sustainability-oriented natural resource management can lead to economic development for poorer people. The researchers hope that their work in the field will help show policymakers the way toward enlightened regulatory practices that encourage both economic equality and environmental protection.


Bottled water companies would have us all believe that tap water is unsafe to drink. But I’ve heard that most tap water is actually pretty safe. Is this true?

— Sam Tsiryulnikov,

Los Angeles, CA

Tap water is not without its problems. The nonprofit Environmental Working Group (EWG) in 2005 tested municipal water in 42 states and detected some 260 contaminants in public water supplies, 140 of which were unregulated chemicals, that is, chemicals for which public health officials have no safety standards for, much less methods for removing them.

EWG did find more than 90 percent compliance on the part of water utilities in applying and enforcing standards that exist, but it faults the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) for failing to establish standards on so many of the contaminants — from industry, agriculture and urban runoff — that do end up in our water.

Despite these seemingly alarming stats, the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), which has also conducted extensive municipal as well as bottled water tests, says: “In the short term, if you are an adult with no special health conditions, and you are not pregnant, then you can drink most cities’ tap water without having to worry.” This is because most of the contaminants in public water supplies exist at such small concentrations that very large quantities would need to be ingested for health problems to occur.

NRDC does caution, however, that pregnant women, young children, the elderly, people with chronic illnesses and those with weakened immune systems can be especially vulnerable to the risks posed by contaminated water. The group suggests that anyone at risk obtain a copy of their city’s annual water quality report (they are mandated by law) and review it with his or her physician.

As for bottled water, it is first important to know that 25 to 30 percent of it comes straight from municipal tap water systems, despite the pretty nature scenes on the bottles that imply otherwise. Some of that water goes through additional filtering, but some does not. NRDC has researched bottled water extensively and has found that it is “subject to less rigorous testing and purity standards than those which apply to city tap water.” Bottled water is required to be tested less frequently than tap water for bacteria and chemical contaminants, and U.S. Food and Drug Administration bottled water rules allow for some contamination by E. coli or fecal coliform, contrary to EPA tap water rules which prohibit any such contamination.

Similarly, NRDC found that there are no requirements for bottled water to be disinfected or tested for parasites such as cryptosporidium or giardia, unlike more stringent EPA rules regulating tap water. This leaves open the possibility, says NRDC, that some bottled water may present similar health threats to those with weakened immune systems, the elderly and others they caution about drinking tap water.

The bottom line is that we have invested considerably in highly efficient municipal water delivery systems that bring this precious liquid straight to our kitchen faucets anytime we need it. Instead of taking that for granted and relying on bottled water instead, we need to make sure our tap water is clean and safe for all.

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