Climate Crossroads Blog
Posted by: Guay at 8:18AM PST on October 25, 2010
According to the International Energy Agency (IEA) 1.2 billion people will continue to lack access to energy by 2030 worldwide - 87% of which will live in rural areas. In September, the IEA, along with other United Nations agencies released an excerpt of the world energy outlook 2010 meant to make the case that reversing this outcome and providing universal energy access was an “ambitious yet achievable” goal. Yet to achieve a radically different outcome requires a fundamental shift in the way the world approaches the provision of rural energy services.
The energy outlook gave the need for this shift a nod by acknowledging the very limited role that traditional grid extension will play in achieving universal electricity access. While this comes as no surprise to the 400 million Indians still waiting for electricity, it may be surprising to the institutions and governments that continue to accept the flawed notion that centralized fossil fuel power generation, transmission, and distribution is up to the task; A notion that has lead to supply side increases in India of 60% over the past decade that have only increased energy access by 10%.
Recognizing the failure of traditional grid extension, the energy outlook concluded that in order to achieve universal access by 2030 only 30% of rural communities will be connected through the grid. The remaining 70% will require mini-grids (75%) or off grid (25%) energy systems. The IEA even goes as far to say that "decentralized solutions…will, indeed, account for most of the investment over the projection period." Moreover, the investment required to achieve universal energy access is only $33 billion per year above what current policies promise – a mere 3% of global energy investment.
This stands in stark contrast to the enormous costs associated with pushing the exact opposite policies of centralized power generation and grid extension. In
The question however, is how best to invest these savings. Many who currently control the purse strings would argue that transmission and distribution improvements, good governance measures that increase the government’s ability to reduce theft and recover costs, and more efficient generation equipment like super critical coal are the best method. However, the IEA makes a resounding case that this is an outdated, inefficient, and flawed way of thinking about rural electrification.
Indeed the failure of this paradigm has generated a new era of Indian social entrepreneurs who have stepped in to provide economical and appropriate solutions for rural communities. For instance, today the cost of coal generation is a mere 2 rupees/kilowatt hour. Compared to micro hydro at 4.5 rupees, biomass at 5 rupees, wind at 12 rupees or solar at 18 rupees this may appear to be the most cost effective source. However, when the costs of infrastructure, maintenance, distribution and grid line extension are included coal is no longer cost competitive with micro hydro or biomass for communities 5 kilometers (~3 miles) from the grid. When you move 10 kilometers (~6 miles) from the grid coal is no longer competitive with wind, and at a mere 15 kilometers (~10 miles) it is no longer competitive with solar. These are the economic calculations before factoring in the Government of India's incentives for renewables, or the enormous hidden costs of coal.
Click the chart to see a bigger version.
In short, the numbers make the case for a completely new and innovative way of conceptualizing rural electrification that supports local entrepreneurs and the clearly superior economics of renewable energy sources. This approach can help address some of the developing world’s most pressing issues including improving health outcomes, and economic productivity while avoiding the heavy toll that fossil fuels exact. So the question really is - why new coal?
Posted by: Guay at 1:02PM PST on October 11, 2010
This past weekend civil
society members from around the world descended on
The Bank however glosses over this failure by continually pushing a false narrative that its fossil fuel energy lending - which includes record sums for coal - is meant to ensure energy access for the poor. In a pointed response to a question on phasing out fossil fuel lending during a civil society town forum, World Bank president Robert Zoellick lambasted those in the West who deny the world’s poor fossil fuel based energy when we ourselves continue to burn coal. Unfortunately, he was unaware that of 26 independently reviewed fossil fuel projects in 2009 and 2010 not a single one had the specific aim of ensuring energy access for the poor, a fact that a searing report from Oil Change International makes painfully clear.
While Mr. Zoellick and the Bank writ large shamefully promoted the failed policies of the past at the annual meetings, a champion was busy rising to the challenges of today in an effort to avoid the destruction that these policies hold. Over the past week, Jairam Ramesh made the unprecedented move of putting on hold for one year all coal-based ultra mega power projects (UMPPs) to be sited in coastal areas relying on imported coal. These 4,000 MW projects are critical to the Government of India’s (GoI) plans for bridging the country’s power deficit. Ramesh’s halt is merely the latest in a series of moves that have earned his ministry the moniker the “no-go ministry.” As if to punctuate the move, later in the week Ramesh clashed with Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s demands for a review of all hydro projects in the Northeast region of the country by declaring a “moratorium on any further clearances, as… these are bound to be the subject of agitation.”
Ramesh’s actions bring to stark relief the difference between the World Bank and the hopes and desires of millions of Indians facing the reality of fossil fuel-led development; a contrast which is only sad, painful and ironic when Mr. Zoellick uses that same plight to justify his actions.
Psychologist Ronald David Laing once said that insanity is a perfectly rational adjustment to an insane world. Jairam Ramesh’s moves may be politically insane for those who refuse to challenge the dominant fossil fuel narrative, but in a world that is rushing headlong towards environmental and developmental disaster they are more than a rational adjustment - they are in fact revolutionary. Political maneuvering may burn out, but as long as civil society is able, we will make sure that standing up for what is right will never fade away.
Posted by: Guay at 9:51AM PST on October 4, 2010
Clean energy collaboration was the centerpiece of last
week’s Yale Climate Change and Energy
Institute US-India Energy Partnership
Summit. The summit focused on attempts to wean the
For instance, at the Summit Zia Khan of the Rockefeller Foundation described a pilot project that replaces the often large sums of diesel used to power cell phone towers with solar power. This not only reduces the costs for tower operators, but provides livelihoods for rural entrepreneurs that can distribute the excess power to surrounding communities. The broader societal ramifications of such innovations ranging from increased rural economic development, to reduced concentrations of wealth and power, to increased democratic control of critical livelihoods needs are astounding.
What’s more, those laboring at the bottom of the pyramid (
This flood of entrepreneurial energy at the
However, the foundations of this myth are eroding. This
erosion is being pushed by the entrepreneurial energy at the
Posted by: Guay at 9:19AM PST on September 27, 2010
It is difficult to comprehend in a society where owning a car is often a prerequisite to a 16th birthday, that nearly 3 billion people, about half of humanity, lack such ubiquitous modern conveniences as clean efficient stoves. According to the World Health Organization (WHO) these inefficient stoves lead to 1.9 million annual deaths from indoor air pollution (IAP) every year. What’s worse, the impact is primarily borne by the most vulnerable in society - women and children. The good news is that a relatively “simple” technology - improved cookstoves - can help rectify the situation by providing a myriad of benefits including saving lives, improving livelihoods, empowering women, and combating climate change. Perhaps the most compelling reason to invest in improved cookstoves is the opportunity to reduce morbidity and mortality. For example, in India, the Lancet found that the distribution of fifteen million improved cookstoves every year for the next decade could supply 87 percent of households across India with a technology that would reduce premature deaths by 17 percent. In addition to reducing pollution, more efficient stoves reduce the frequency and duration of trips spent foraging for fuel wood, which can help women in conflict areas avoid being brutalized. The reduced need for firewood not only protects women, it reduces what can be severe deforestation in conflict areas and refugee situations (as occurred in the Kivu region of the Congo after the Rwandan genocide). In addition to reducing deforestation, improved cookstoves play an important role in mitigating climate change by reducing black carbon that lasts days to weeks in the atmosphere (compared to one hundred years for carbon dioxide). This fast acting mitigation strategy is critical for India where black carbon emissions account for thirty percent of the changes associated with Himalayan glacier melt. By eliminating the use of open fires for cooking and the accompanying black carbon emissions, it is possible to reduce an estimated 0.5-1 billion tons of carbon dioxide-equivalent gases in India alone. Considering the fact that black carbon emissions result in nearly one-fifth of temperature increases associated with global warming – the second-largest contributor to climate change after carbon dioxide – it is clear that an investment in improved cookstoves is an investment in combating climate change. However, until recently progress on achieving the win-win-win associated with this technology has been held back for decades by a variety of cultural, technological, and market-related factors. However, in 2009 India announced a National Biomass Cookstoves Initiative, under the Ministry of New and Renewable Energy to provide improved cookstoves for an estimated 160 million Indian homes. The program will help eliminate the 570,000 premature deaths poor women and children suffer. In 2010 the initiative was bolstered by the announcement of a partnership with the X Prize Foundation and the Indian Institute of Technology in Delhi to create a global competition to develop and deploy clean and efficient cookstoves. While these efforts are critical, the truly catalyzing moment came last week at the Clinton Global Initiative when the Global Alliance for Clean Cookstoves was announced with a US contribution of $50 million. By addressing past failures and creating a thriving global market for clean and efficient household cooking solutions, the Alliance plans to reach its ‘100 by 20’ goal that calls for 100 million homes to adopt clean and efficient stoves and fuels by 2020. The Alliance’s effort rests on its ability to work with public, private, and non-profit partners to overcome the market barriers that currently impede the production, deployment, and use of clean cookstoves in the developing world. Ultimately, addressing the critical issues that surround inefficient cookstoves yields benefits that far outweigh the meager costs; Costs which pale in comparison to the unacceptable burden borne by the worlds' poor. While cookstoves themselves are only one step towards saving the world, by addressing the fundamental issues of women’s empowerment, improved health, and improved environmental sustainability we are investing in a more just, equitable, and sustainable future for us all.
Posted by: Guay at 6:21AM PST on September 20, 2010
It is an often unchallenged premise that the road to development must be paved with fossil fuels. One which has lead international finance institutions (IFIs) charged with enabling development for the billions of poor around the world to heavily finance and subsidize them. The results of this lending are on prominent display at the World Bank. From fiscal year 06-10, World Bank lending for fossil fuels increased from $1.5 billion to $6.2 billion. In fact 2010 represented a record year for fossil fuel lending at the Bank with $4.4 billion for coal projects alone.
While the World Bank and other IFIs pursue this destructive lending the projects are often met with fierce resistance by local communities who refuse to shoulder the burden fossil fuels will exact. Projects which are coming online at a time of near crisis levels of climate change impacts; Impacts, which are overwhelmingly borne by the billions of poor in vulnerable areas of the world. It is truly a sad and cruel fate that the remedy offered by IFIs for a lack of modern energy service that restricts development opportunities, is a devils bargain that threatens to literally wash away the hard fought development gains of recent decades.
However, the Bank as well as other IFIs, (including the United States Export Import Bank, which is on a fossil fuel binge of its own) continue their incoherent lending when it comes to fossil fuels and climate change. They do so by maintaining that fossil fuels, particularly coal, are the cheapest forms of energy, and are therefore vital for eradicating poverty. Moreover, with a lack of leadership from the industrialized world it is impossible to let climate concerns trump the urgent necessity of poverty eradication.
Unfortunately the either/or narrative of eradicating poverty through fossil fuel development or addressing climate change falls painfully flat for a number of reasons. The first and foremost is the widely acknowledged fact that simple cost/benefit analyses fail to internalize the laundry list of costs imposed upon society (particularly the poor) by fossil fuels including climate change, human health impacts, and ecosystem impacts. In addition, fossil fuels are subject to significant price fluctuations. For example, due to its high dependency on oil to power its mining operations the price of “cheap” Appalachian coal tripled on the U.S. spot market from 2007-2008 to over $140/ton.
While concerns over the true cost of fossil fuels justifies a fundamental shift in lending practices, the deeper issue remains their inability to provide access to energy for the world’s poor. Nowhere is this issue more clearly illustrated than India where according to the UNDP and WHO 28% of the 1.5 billion people lacking access to electricity live. There are any number of reasons for the failure of centralized fossil fuel energy supplies to reach rural India including the high cost of grid extensions, and the countries notoriously "leaky" transmission system.
However, in spite of these issues the International Finance Corporation (IFC), a member of the World Bank Group, provided nearly $450 million dollars in 2008 to create one of the world's largest point sources of greenhouse gas emissions the 4,000 MW Tata Mundra coal based power project in Gujarat. It then backed this colossal mistake with a further $1 billion in financing two years later to "strengthen the transmission network for bulk power transfers."
What's worse, in an Orwellian attempt to justify the project and the broader fossil fuels narrative Tata Mundra applied for carbon credits under the Clean Development Mechanism (CDM) of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change. The applications was based on the faulty logic that supercritical technology employed at the plant would more efficiently burn coal thereby lowering levels of CO2 emissions. The Executive Board of the CDM saw through this absurd attempt and rejected the project. However, with Indian supercritical coal technology attempting to position itself as a low carbon alternative eligible for carbon credits and the government's coal ministry firing salvos at Jairam Ramesh for standing up to this destructive form of development it is absolutely vital that IFIs recant the false narrative from which this lunacy has sprung.
Ultimately, it is access to modern energy services that is a fundamental prerequisite to poverty eradication and economic development - an area where the fossil fuel led development narratives ultimate failure rests. Energy sector lending must ensure that energy access becomes the central priority of international financial institutions. Doing so clearly demonstrates the need to look for innovative solutions for the poor by supporting the rural market infrastructure for decentralized renewable energy rather than propping up the failed policies of the past. Because when the world’s children look back and ask why did you choose new coal? No amount of "pro-poor" rhetoric will be able to put a positive spin on the dark future fossil fuels will have forged.
Posted by: Guay at 8:59AM PST on September 13, 2010
As the old adage goes, “If you only have a hammer, you tend to see every problem as a nail”. When it comes to decarbonizing the world economy this statement is surprisingly true. Energy companies and fossil fuel driven industries face sunk costs in physical and market infrastructure, assets and equipment, as well as human resources that can not necessarily be recouped or retooled for a clean energy economy. They are also set to earn the largest profits in world history as diminishing supplies and rising demand for the lifeblood of global society send energy prices constantly upward.
The collapses in
For too long in our quest for global decarbonization we have hammered away at what we thought was a nail. This has resulted in a neglect of many potentially critical policies including fast acting mitigation strategies. Perhaps most importantly however, has been the lack of recognition of the need to ensure clean energy access for all.
While sweeping statements like this sound great it is
important to understand their practical implications. One such example is SELCO-India founded by Harish
Hande, a pioneer of the social entrepreneurship movement focused on solving
the problems of
SELCO, like all social entrepreneurs, relies on the axiom promoted by the late CK Prahalad that the poor should be viewed as customers, not beneficiaries. Directly stemming from this philosophy came one of SELCO’s primary innovations - matching the irregular and inherently low cash flows of rural consumers with appropriate micro financing tools. The result was a successful engagement of third party micro financing to provide “doorstep” financing and service. This innovative commitment to building rural microfinance relationships focused on energy loans is a critical component to creating the market infrastructure for a clean energy economy in rural areas of the developing world.
SELCO now operates 25 energy service centers in Karnataka
SELCO is now building further upon these innovations by incubating a clean energy marketplace through its latest effort an innovation center for the poor. The ICP was created because many poor households and small enterprises lack the infrastructure necessary for poverty alleviation. The ICP, funded by the Lemelson foundation, brings together the Self Employed Women’s Association Bank, Manila Housing SEWA Trust, and SELCO to provide innovative solutions (technology, financing, and process) that are building the renewable energy market infrastructure necessary to support improved earnings, enhanced quality of life, and improved working conditions for India’s poor.
Much like the infamous venture capital valley of death, renewable energy solutions in the developing world face the “last mile” implementation gap where many clean energy innovations fail to reach end consumers. SELCO’s innovation center employs a number of methods to help bridge this gap: 1) It partners with NGOs that enable it to draw from the large networks of low-income consumers for new product demos, refinement of products and ideation, 2) It supports a rotational program that brings the most experienced SELCO staff onsite allowing the lab to draw new product and process ideas from the field, while sharing new products for dissemination, 3) Its partnership with the established rural training center allows training courses designed by the Lab to piggyback on existing rural training infrastructure.
Perhaps the most impressive (and least conventional) aspect
of the innovation center is the fact that it is open source. It has a stated
goal of accelerating the growth of potential entrepreneurs by providing hands-on
training, prototyping, pilot testing and mentorship. It also provides
performance testing and consumer research services to third parties who have
developed products for rural areas but lack the means, networks, or field
presence for effective dissemination. A concept that
Ultimately, SELCO and its innovation center are moving beyond the failed approach of the past 30 years to begin actually building the desperately needed market infrastructure to provide clean energy to all. Undoubtedly further policy and private sector support will be needed to help scale these bottom-up solutions. Now, more than ever, it is time to free our thinking to focus on innovatively delivering clean energy to every citizen on this planet - a concept whose time has truly arrived.
Posted by: Guay at 9:31AM PST on September 7, 2010
Following the failure of the United States Senate to pass climate change legislation, and the ensuing finger pointing, weeping and gnashing of teeth, many in the international environmental community have been left to ponder the enormity of the implications. With an already beleaguered set of UNFCCC negotiations, an embattled IPCC, a fading climate agenda at the annual G-20 meetings (which just a year ago pledged to phase out fossil fuel subsidies) and the continual onslaught of rising temperatures and climate related disasters, things look bleak to say the least. Indeed, if there were ever a time for energy and passion to be infused in the climate movement it is now.
Enter 350.org's efforts to build a global movement to not only demand action, but get to work on the change they wish to see. Building upon the incredible success of last year’s international day of action the organization is planning a global work party that already counts 1,077 groups in 109 countries.
During the global day of action in 2009 India alone was home to more than 160 actions in over 70 cities with the number 350 formed by shikaras on Dal Lake in Kashmir and by school children next to the Taj Mahal. This year is no different with 22 states already signed up for 350 actions spanning the Amber fort in the colorful deserts of Rajasthan to the far flung north eastern state of Assam to the glittering financial hub of Mumbai.
What’s most striking about these events is the youth participation at a grassroots level in a nation where, according to UNICEF, 37% of the population is under 18. In addition to 350 organizations like the Indian Youth Climate Network, Greenpeace India and Whynewcoal.com, are demonstrating the youth’s refutation of destructive fossil fuel technologies of the past and the generations powerful embrace of a clean energy future.
It is in this spirit that every corner of
As we stand amidst the wreckage of action at a political level it is the world’s every day citizens that are rising to the challenge and reinfusing the climate movement with the fierce urgency of now. As Bill Mckibben put it on the David Letterman show, “if we can get to work, we damn well expect our politicians to”. After all, it’s hot as hell and we’re not going to take it anymore.
** The Sierra Club is helping 350.org by organizing work parties in several states across the country. If you are interested in joining these efforts please look here for more information or here to host a work party.
Posted by: Guay at 9:42AM PST on August 31, 2010
The Konkan coast of Maharashtra, India -- dubbed the California of India -- has been the stage for an impressive people’s movement bent on opposing a slew of coal-fired power projects and mines. These developments will ravage one of Maharashtra’s most serene areas, home to an international biodiversity hot spot as well as world famous Alphonso mango. Despite its idyllic setting, Konkan locals have proven themselves to be street-smart activists capable of striking back at those who threaten their way of life.
Posted by: Guay at 9:50AM PST on August 23, 2010
Much hype has surrounded
In the countries financial capital, Mumbai, which boasts a population of somewhere near 20 million residents, a sea-link (a short bridge) was recently built to allow suburban dwellers in the Bandra neighborhood to quickly and easily drive to the Business district in Worli. The project cost around $355 million and will primarily benefit the less than 3 percent of residents who travel to work by car. In contrast, an estimated 48 percent of Mumbai’s population walks or bikes to work. The rest rely on the cities trains and buses which are notorious for their super dense crush load, none of which will be helped by the costly sea link.
Finally, of course, there is transportation impact
on climate change. In the
With a myriad of daunting issues it is clear
Posted by: Guay at 9:18AM PST on August 20, 2010
A couple of months back India’s environment minister Jairam Ramesh made a little noticed, yet highly significant move when he called for a small tax on coal. This coal tax -- anathema to American politics -- will help create a national clean energy fund while reinforcing the vital public principal that the polluter pays.
Building upon this proposal, he is calling for an environmental levy on mining, saying “A polluter-pays principle could be laid down in the [Mines and Minerals] bill, which mandates an environmental levy for pollution caused by mining activity during the life of the project. This levy should be used directly for combating local environmental degradation…” In essence, over the past six months Jairam Ramesh has done more to uphold this critical principle than the United States Senate has over the past decade.
The significance of each of these acts must be put in perspective for
American politicians that dare not challenge King Coal. Ramesh’s call comes
amidst Naxalite violence in
This context must then be placed within the prevailing narrative of ramped up energy production fueled by coal to lift the masses out of poverty. This narrative is driving the country to build nine coal-based “ultra mega power projects” (UMPP) – above 4,000 Mw - in order to bridge persistent energy shortages. However, with some of the highest distribution losses in the world (to the tune of 25-40%), and the fact that many areas will never benefit from centralized grid connections, the wisdom of pursuing centralized coal fired power is dubious. Meanwhile the poor continue to struggle without adequate energy supplies while millions more face chronic power outages. And around and around we go…
The ultimate point is not to
While American politicians blame their ineptitude on the vagaries of the economy and US political system, Jairam Ramesh has deftly maneuvered his own minefield of destabilizing violence, mafia activity, debilitating poverty, and energy shortages to uphold this principle. It’s time we do the same – before it’s too late.
Posted by: Guay at 9:12AM PST on August 9, 2010
Catastrophic floods in Pakistan, a new Asian temperature record of 128 degrees, and record Russian temperatures that have caused stalwart climate skeptics to change their tune are just the latest visceral impacts of climate change. Add to this the recent death of the US climate bill and it’s frightening to hear that according to Michael Levi at the Council on Foreign Relations, we really have no idea where the clean energy revolution is headed.
However, in spite of our apparent inability to respond to climate change at a policy level and the conventional wisdom that predicts fossil fuels will dominate future energy supplies -according to the IEA 77%- a clean energy transition is taking place. Take the 1500% increase in solar panel installations in the “sunny” United Kingdom, which is outpacing Spain’s “abysmal” increase of 730%. Or look at the recently released US wind power figures showing nearly 10 GW of installed power accounting for almost 40% of new US electricity capacity.
Even more impressive are the numbers from the recent United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD) report on global low carbon investment. The report shows that in 2009 alone $90 billion in Foreign Direct Investment (FDI) was directed towards renewables, recycling, and low-carbon technology manufacturing. All of this despite Bloomberg’s recently released study showing that global energy subsidies provide 12 times more support to fossil fuels than renewables.
What is particularly striking however, is that it more and more this transition is being lead by rapidly industrializing nations that according to conventional wisdom can simply not afford these technologies and must rely on harmful, outdated fossil fuels to achieve development. These nations are demonstrating that not only is the clean energy revolution feasible, it represents a strategic positioning for tomorrow’s clean technology economy.
The real question is whether this transition will become the revolution it needs to be - whether it will occur quickly enough, and at the needed scale to avert the worst of the impacts many of which we are already experiencing. The answer relies on defying convention and embracing and pushing leaders to follow the path unfolding before us. Forcing them to accept that is up to us.
Posted by: Guay at 7:58AM PST on August 3, 2010
As the global economy attempts to make the transition beyond coal and oil, the broader societal implications of energy production and consumption are only fleetingly recognized. Perhaps one of the most important is the “radical” notion of putting energy in the hands of the people.
In many rapidly industrializing countries large scale coal fired
power plants are justified by the developmental necessity of lifting millions
out of poverty. This justification however, falls flat when 430 million people
live in rural areas that lack access to the grid as they do in
As is often the case, the poor end up paying much higher relative prices for the poor quality of energy they receive. For example, while off-grid lighting users spend over $40 billion per year on lighting - about 20% of all global lighting expenditures - they receive only 0.1% of the total lighting services consumed by the world. The Lumina project, estimates that the greenhouse-gas emissions from this lighting is equal to 190 million tonnes of CO2 per year – taken as a country it would be the 8th largest in the world.
the environmental motivations for promoting large scale renewable energy
To ensure that a clean energy transition reaches the base of the pyramid (BOP) the Indian hotbed of social entrepreneurism is rising to the challenge. A prime example of this movement is Greenlight Planet who recently won the Solar for all Prize sponsored by Deutsche Bank. The prize was created by Ashoka vice president David Green with a vision to achieve 2.5 million solar system installations annually in the initial years and to reach 60 million households by 2020.
Greenlight Planet took home the prize for its efforts to distribute durable, well designed, high quality LED solar lanterns to the BOP. With a multi level marketing strategy, an affordable price point of around $18, and an emphasis on quality products and service these lanterns are helping to provide millions of rural Indians with safe, clean sources of lighting that replace kerosene lamps.
We currently stand at a crossroads, climate change is drastically altering planetary cycles, fossil fuel supplies are contracting while demand is skyrocketing, and undreamt of wealth is becoming ever more concentrated in the hands of a few. There are few opportunities where strategic choices like promoting the use of decentralized, distributed energy applications can have such large societal ramifications. It’s time to support pioneers like David Green, Greenlight Planet and all of those who are truly promoting solar for all.
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