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President Obama Calls Clean Energy Trend “Irreversible”

The Long Island Solar Farm began delivering power to the Long Island Power Authority grid in November 2011. | Flickr/ Brookhaven National Laboratory/ CC By-NC-ND 2.0

President Barack Obama said trends toward a clean energy economy that have emerged during his two-term presidency "will continue" after he leaves office, according to a Policy Forum that the outgoing president used to outline the future of one of his top policy goals that was published in the 13 January issue of Science.

From 2008 to 2015, Obama writes, the U.S. economy grew by more than 10% while carbon dioxide emissions from the energy sector fell by 9.5 % — a result that "should put to rest the argument that combating climate change requires accepting lower growth or a lower standard of living."

While the trend is most visible in the United States, growing economies in other parts of the globe are also charting similar outcomes, Obama notes. The International Energy Agency's preliminary estimate of global energy-related carbon dioxide emissions for 2015 reveals that emissions compared to the previous year stayed flat, as the global economy grew.

To support his confidence in continued momentum around clean energy, Obama cites businesses witnessing firsthand how reducing emissions and committing to energy efficiency work to their benefit — boosting bottom lines, cutting costs for consumers and delivering returns for shareholders. Obama highlights several American firms that are cutting energy waste to save money, including Alcoa and General Motors.

Such corporate decision-making can save money, but it also has the potential to create good-paying jobs, he writes. Already, according to a Department of Energy report released in January 2016, 2.2 million Americans are employed in the production of energy-efficiency products and services, compared with the roughly 1.1 million employed in fossil fuel-related power generation.

Obama also discusses the transformation of the largest source of greenhouse gas emissions in the U.S. economy, the electric-power sector. Thanks to new production techniques, this sector is shifting from coal-focused to natural gas production, for example. A dramatic drop in renewable electricity costs from 2008 to 2015 has prompted Google to power 100% of its operations using renewable energy in 2017, and other American businesses are following suit.

“There have been some large changes in the way this country and others produce and use energy,” said AAAS CEO Rush Holt. “President Obama makes a strong case that these changes will continue.”

In concluding his piece, Obama highlights a palpable global momentum in the clean energy space, which, he notes, was previously lacking. The United Nations' Paris agreement on climate change in 2015, however, saw nations agree that all countries should put forward smart climate policies.

"It's good business and good economics to lead a technological revolution and define market trends," Obama writes. "The latest science and economics provide a helpful guide for what the future may bring."