The Australian Religious Response to Climate Change (ARRCC) advocates that Australian governments respond to the science of climate change in the way they have responded to COVID-19. This would mean stimulus spending on climate-conserving, low-carbon options, many of which are deployment ready, economically cheaper and more employment-intensive than fossil fuel-based industries which are declining and come with huge and costly environmental consequences.
“The current health crisis has highlighted as never before the need for coherent international action in the face of global threat. Can we learn the lesson and apply it to the global threat of climate change? To do so means taking practical and effective steps to reduce our lethal dependence on fossil fuels.” Former Archbishop of Canterbury, Rt Revd Dr Rowan Williams, May 2020
Governments are now making decisions that will set the direction for energy policy for years to come. They will potentially spend hundreds of billions of dollars, leaving a huge debt that will take decades to pay off. The danger is that they could lock in Australia’s greenhouse gas emissions at a level not even consistent with warming below 2°C, much less the currently more accepted guardrail of 1.5°C.
Of particular concern is the fossil-fuel connected membership of the COVID-19 Commission and its powerful influence over policy at a time when energy policy is being set and the Federal Parliament is rarely sitting, limiting scrutiny.
We call on the federal government to take a long-term view and consider the welfare of Australia as a whole, not just particular sectors. On the energy front, this means promoting investment in low-carbon technologies which can provide plentiful, long-lasting jobs across Australia’s regions, develop clean on-shore manufacturing, allow us to export clean energy to the world and build a climate-resilient economy. It would also mean a safer climate for our children and grandchildren. We owe at least that to coming generations who will be left with the debts we incur in these coming months.
The Federal Government and scientific advice
It has been encouraging to see the federal government taking the advice of medical experts and epidemiologists, that is, the science. The federal government has been regulating for the common good and spending money to alleviate hardship in ways formerly thought to be impossible. In a crisis, thankfully it has been recognised that market forces are not enough and our nation needs “strong government leadership”.
Likewise, the new bipartisanship in decision-making processes between Labor and the Coalition has been positive. As Rod Mitchell says at the Citizens Climate Lobby, “It signified a truce or at least a ceasefire in the culture war – a recognition that we are all in this together, that the virus and its economic effects can take us all down.” [i]
Climate disruption is not a novel or immediate threat in the same way as COVID-19, but it will have even more far-reaching impacts on human health and well-being, so it warrants the same bipartisanship.
With the slow-moving crisis caused by global warming, the federal government has so far failed to act commensurately with authoritative scientific assessments of the gravity of the threat.
Climate science drowned out by fossil fuel industries
Influence of fossil fuel industries during pandemic crisis
The close connection between governments in Australia and the fossil fuel lobby have been well documented.[ii] It is quite shocking to read recent reports of this influence over the months of the bushfire crisis and the early days of the pandemic – see Dirty Power: Burnt Country [iii] compiled by Greenpeace researchers, and the website Fossil Fuel Watch [iv] (https://fossilfuel.watch/) by 350.org Australia.
350.org in particular has charted the extent of the influence of industry lobbyists, including the Minerals Council of Australia, the Australian Petroleum Production and Exploration Association and the Institute of Public Affairs. See the thoroughly researched https://fossilfuel.watch/the-wishlist/. This is of great concern, given that they represent the interests of wealthy companies, with substantial overseas shareholdings. Their record is misrepresenting the truth has been thoroughly exposed. [v] Their self-interested advocacy includes:
- Further tax breaks [vi]
- a reduction in “red” [vii] and “green tape” [viii], including the weakening of environmental protections [ix]
- weakening industrial relations protections [x] eg, calls for awards and enterprise agreements to be suspended
- faster approval of projects, leaving less time for proper scrutiny and community review
- delayed royalty increases [xi]
- the delay or rollback of climate and renewables policies.
They often argue their case in terms of the employment generated, but in fact miners such as Peabody Energy [xii] and Woodside are using the impact of COVID-19 to justify laying off workers, and fast-track mine automation. [xiii] Others, such as Adani, are fast pushing ahead with their projects.
The health and well-being of the Australian people are under threat if the above recommendations are legislated.
Democracy is far more than elections held every three to four years, and the number of issues on which people base their vote means that the results do not reflect public sentiment on one issue alone. On the question of the need for climate action and a shift to less polluting technologies, there have been innumerable petitions and polls showing support for such a shift, countless submissions, marches, protest actions, visits to Members of Parliament, community-based renewable energy initiatives, opinion pieces, books, letters, letters to the editor and social media posts. Two million Australian households now have solar on their rooftops. And yet so far, extractive industries are consistently favoured by state and federal governments over the will of everyday Australians.
We know that genuine climate action is frustrated by the disproportionate political influence of extractive industries. Much has been written about donations to the two major political Parties and the “revolving door”, between government roles and industry boards. [xiv] This is undemocratic and it is ethically unacceptable. It has led to the corruption of our democracy and the rise of public cynicism, distrust and, for some, despair.
Appointments to the National COVID-19 Coordination Commission
It has been disappointing to see the Prime Minister appointing so many fossil fuel industry executives to the National COVID-19 Coordination Commission, to be chaired by gas champion and former head of Fortescue Metals, Neville Power.
The power of the Commission makes this all the more concerning. Initially it appeared that the work of the Commission was to ensure the flow of needed medical supplies, but it appears to have become the main driver of industry policy. It will have significant influence over billions of dollars of public money as it works to ‘mobilise the whole-of-economy effort to ensure the economic and social impacts from the global COVID-19 pandemic are anticipated and mitigated’.
The constitution of the Committee has advocates for one sector of society and, to make matters worse, an acutely self-interested one. Where are the capable advisors from among Aboriginal Australians, the education sector, the arts, health, welfare, finance, conservationist, climate action, faith, union, renewable energy and research sectors?
Early fruits of Neville Power’s conflicts of interest are that he:
- Has already made clear his bias in public statements such as “We need competitive energy prices, particularly gas, to attract large-scale manufacturing like fertiliser and petrochemicals.” [xv]
- Appears to have successfully persuaded Energy and Emissions Reductions Minister Angus Taylor to champion a gas-led recovery. He has said “I like to think of the other side of Covid-19 as being a gas-fired recovery.” This is a shift from the technology-neutral energy policies of the past. He announced the weakening of already lax environmental standards for fuel [xvi], and sought to redirect investment from renewable energy to carbon capture and storage [xvii] through a new Technology Investment Roadmap.
- Recommended funding of a fertiliser plant in Narrabri which would rely on Santos’ controversial Narrabri gas project, for which various approvals have not yet been given. [xviii]
Resources Minister Keith Pitt has:
- admonished “misguided” lenders who have committed to abandon coal [xix]
- demanded the Queensland Government speed up the controversial approval process for the extension of New Hope’s Acland coal mine [xx]
- backed exploitation of the Great Australian Bight for oil and Galilee Basin for coal. [xxi]
Environment Minister Sussan Ley supports a regulatory overhaul and reportedly pledged to amend legislation to remove “unnecessary blockages” to key projects, eg, environmental groups taking matter to the courts to protect the environment, even before a final review of the EPBC Act is due. [xxii]
Recommendations regarding COVID-19 Commission
There are few of the usual democratic constraints on the Commission which also has far-reaching powers. Concerns [xxiii] have been raised by Zali Steggall MP, the Human Rights Law Centre, Transparency International, the Grata Fund and the Centre for Public Integrity.
Given the high stakes, now is a time when accountability measures should be highest. ARRCC calls on the government to:
- Broaden representation on the Commission to include leaders from among Aboriginal Australians, from the education sector, arts, health, welfare, finance, environmental, union, renewable energy and research sectors
- Strictly apply accountability measures including an oversight committee to review the operations of the Commission, ensure there is transparency about day-to-day operations through a public register of meetings, and establish a conflict of interest disclosure register.
- Create public consultation mechanisms, so the community can have input into the advice given.
- Establish guiding principles for the Commission to follow, such as: (a) That investment will be in sustainable technologies (b) That it will lead to both the lowering of emissions and the creation of the largest number of jobs and (c) That benefits of the investment will help make society more equitable
We recommend that the Commission follow the criteria for evaluating stimulus spending in the report, “Design Principles for Fiscal Policy in a Pandemic”, by the Australia Institute. See https://www.tai.org.au/content/design-principles-fiscal-policy-pandemic
- Go households: Put purchasing power with households who are more likely to spend it
- Targets activities with high direct employment intensities
- Targets domestic production so jobs are created locally
- Targets those most impacted by the crisis
- Targets useful projects that deliver co-benefits
- Targets regional disadvantage
The authors analysed various kinds of projects and found, for example, a coal-fired power station does generally not meet the criteria whereas tree-planting and urban beautification would. Another possibility which would meet these criteria is community-based renewable energy. It is especially employment-intensive, as well as providing energy locally over a long period, reducing greenhouse gas emissions, helping meet our international obligations and reducing pollution.
There are already hundreds of such community-based energy projects, many of them based in regional areas like Singleton, Toowoomba, NSW South Coast, Benalla (Vic), Bellingen and Uralla (NSW). See the maps of Zero Carbon Communities: https://bze.org.au/zero-carbon-communities/ and the Community Power Agency: https://cpagency.org.au/resources/map/
What is at stake
The IPCC Special Report on Global Warming of 1.5°C of 2018 showed how the world is lagging dangerously far behind the targets needed to avoid catastrophic levels of climate disruption. [xxiv]
The super-storms being experienced today, the droughts, bushfires, bleaching of coral reefs, food insecurity and sea level rise have come about because of 1°C of warming. The world is presently on track for at least 3°C of warming, a level that would be catastrophic. [xxv] The possibility of tipping points is terrifying for anyone genuinely aware of the science.
Limiting warming to 1.5oC will require the very rapid decarbonisation of the global economy. For Australia, this means no new coal or gas mining, a shift to 100% renewable energy as soon as possible, and reaching net zero emissions well before mid-century. Every delay will cost lives and livelihoods, especially for those already in poverty.
A new study in the journal Nature warns that if global warming is left unchecked, we could see the collapse of certain ecosystems within ten years. [xxvi]
In deciding on what kind of economic stimulus will be needed for the Recovery phase, ARRCC urges decision-makers to remember that the climate crisis is not taking a break. At the time of writing, Australia’s unprecedented drought has not yet fully broken and the legacy of last summer’s catastrophic bushfires is still raw.
The human community now has contemporaneous experience of how a crisis plays out when the science is not properly heeded. With climate change recognised as a “threat multiplier”, it is not being “alarmist” to expect that humanity will have to deal with many more major disruptions, no less confronting than COVID-19, if global warming is not effectively mitigated as soon as possible. It is simply realistic, given what scientists are telling us. Unless we act.
The bankruptcy of the solutions offered so far
The federal government is supporting declining industries with no lasting future. Insofar as they have a future, the survival of humanity is under threat.
It is very concerning that the Energy and Emissions Reduction Minister, Angus Taylor, is promoting natural gas and liquified natural gas (LNG) as answers to Australia’s energy needs. He has neglected the further damage that gas, as a fossil fuel, will do to the climate.
Experts no longer regard gas as a “transition fuel”. There are three reasons for this.
- More careful tracking of fugitive emissions shows methane is emitted at many points along the gas supply chain from venting, flaring, high point vents in pipelines and leakages from wells, pipelines, LNG facilities and regasification facilities. It is therefore at least as emissions intensive as coal.
- Estimates vary, but methane is 86 – 120 times more heat-trapping in the atmosphere than CO2 and does most of this damage in the first ten years. It is responsible for about a quarter of total atmospheric warmingto date. [xxvii]
- LNG is an extremely energy-intensive process as the gas needs to be super cooled to -162°C[xxviii] for shipping, and secondly, fugitive methane emissions in the gas supply chain only need to be at 1% to make gas a worse emitter than coal. [xxix]
Robert Howarth, a professor at Cornell University, that one-third of total rising global methane emissions came from one source, shale oil and gas. [xxx] To slow global warming immediately, Howarth recommends “the best strategy is to move as quickly as possible away from natural gas, reducing both carbon dioxide and methane emissions.”
See also article by Bruce Robertson, gas/LNG analyst with IEEFA:
It is to be expected that declining industries will fight for their survival. Economies are constantly being re-configured as old industries decline and more technologically advanced industries replace them, for example, the horse and cart to automobiles.
What is unacceptable is governments allowing their close ties to certain industries to skew their decision-making against the interests of the people who elected them. By supporting a fossil fuel resources-led recovery, the federal government is essentially backing losers.
Currently, coal-mining is the third most rapidly declining industry in the world; global oil and gas exploration and production is the fourth most rapidly declining industry (See https://www.ibisworld.com/global/industry-trends/fastest-declining-industries/)
“Thermal coal demand is projected to fall as many countries focus on developing cleaner energy sources, slowing demand for coal used to generate electricity.” (See https://www.ibisworld.com/global/market-research-reports/global-coal-mining-industry/)
Investors are increasingly shifting away from fossil fuel intensive industries towards sustainable options. In January 2020 the chief executive of the world’s largest investor announced that “BlackRock would cut out investments in some coal producers from some of its portfolios, sharply increase the number of sustainability-focused funds that it offers, and vote against companies at shareholder meetings when they’re too slow in disclosing and mitigating their impact on the environment.” [xxxi]
The case for investment in a low-carbon recovery
Government spending should create the largest number of jobs possible whilst also creating a fairer, more environmentally sustainable and more resilient society. This has been found to be achievable by University of Oxford researchers into the outcomes of past stimulus packages. Their analysis, released on May 4, shows the potential for strong alignment between the economy and the environment. Low-carbon projects create more jobs, deliver higher short-term returns per dollar spend and lead to increased long-term cost savings, by comparison with traditional fiscal stimulus. [xxxii]
The government is rightly concerned about the economic benefits of their choices but should include all the costs – external and internal – of any option. In the case of fossil fuels these include the added pollution, health burden, remediation costs and impact of extreme weather events. They should also beware the false distinctions between protecting health, the economy and the environment. These are all inter-related, and the sum of them is the welfare of the Australian community.
- Low-carbon solutions create more jobs
Research by the World Bank, AltEnergyStocks and others have concluded that, for the same amount of money, around three times the number of jobs are created in renewable energy and energy efficiency than are created by coal and gas mining. “The World Bank estimates that U.S. wind and solar creates about 13.5 jobs per million dollars of spending, and that building retrofits — energy efficiency — creates 16.7 jobs per million dollars of spending. This is more than three times the 5.2 jobs per $1 million for oil and natural gas, and more than two times the 6.9 jobs per $1 million for coal.” (See https://www.greenbiz.com/article/how-many-jobs-does-clean-energy-create)
Also, the vast majority of energy sector jobs, such as electricians, power plant operators, riggers, etc., are needed for both fossil and non-fossil energy. [xxxiii]
Extractive industries over-claim their contribution to job creation, pleading for favourable treatment or jobs in regional areas will be lost. It is true that regional communities should be supported in establishing new employment opportunities, but they are not served well in the long-term when governments accede to pressure to prop up old, declining industries.
- Investing in renewables is fairer to Aboriginal traditional owners
Our dependency on coal and gas mining has come at a huge cost to the land rights of Aboriginal traditional owners. Aboriginal activists in a number of different parts of the land we now call Australia have described the following process to members of ARRCC: where mining companies have wanted to exploit a new reserve, they have typically manipulated parts of the local Aboriginal population (sometimes not those directly connected to the sites in question), misrepresenting the benefits of the development to their communities and persuaded them to sign agreements. [xxxiv]
In the meantime, other Aboriginal people directly connected to the Country in question have wanted to protect their Country from invasion and continue their spiritual connection with the land. However, they are sidelined both politically and via legislation. It is thus that the march of colonialism continues to destroy the land rights of Aboriginal people. With no land rights comes cultural alienation, breakdown of community, and all the other social issues plaguing Aboriginal communities.
A shift in how we source our energy needs would help halt the ongoing invasion of the land now known as Australia by non-Indigenous peoples.
- Investing in renewables leaves more water for farmers, people and nature
On May 4, the Australian Conservation Foundation (ACF) released the results of research into how much water is used just by the coal industry. The research shows coal mines and coal-fired power stations in NSW and Queensland consume 383 billion litres of water every year. That’s a conservative estimate, but it’s as much as the annual domestic water use of 5.2 million Australians, or every household in Queensland. ACF authors write, “Our land is like a body. When we are run down and exhausted, that’s when sickness knocks us for six. The same is true for nature, climate and our communities.” [xxxvi]
At the same time, this declining industry contributes to climate change and therefore the desertification of our already dry continent. Clearly, our governments’ continuing support for the coal industry make no economic sense.
- Investing in low-carbon solutions creates better health outcomes
Reduced pollution would in turn lead to better health outcomes in the short-medium term. An Environmental Justice Australia study of NSW coal-fired power stations concluded that fine particulate pollution from the plants cause at least 279 premature deaths per year in NSW alone, as well as causing asthma, low birth weight, type 2 diabetes and so on. (See https://www.envirojustice.org.au/healthstudynsw/)
In the long-term, a warmer world is a sicker world. A collective failure to bring emissions down will mean a warming world, leading to heat-related deaths, food scarcity (because of droughts, unpredictable rainfall, floods), more smoke from more frequent and intense bush-fires and tropical diseases moving further from the equator. The World Health Organization estimates that between 2030 and 2050, climate change will cause 250,000 deaths per year. The majority of them will be among people in developing countries. (See https://www.who.int/news-room/fact-sheets/detail/climate-change-and-health)
- Investing in low-carbon solutions is fairer to young people
Younger generations are among those most disadvantaged as we collectively make noble efforts to minimise mortality from a disease which more often hits those who are older. The young are having their all-important education disrupted; they are more likely to be in casual employment and to lose their jobs [xxxvii], more likely to be renting, in shared accommodation; they will bear the brunt of the predicted long-term recession.
Younger generations are making sacrifices today largely to protect the health of older people and they will be called upon in future to pay off the debts we incur in the fight against this pandemic. At the same time, they face a terrible climate-disrupted future which they have not created themselves. It is only fair that today’s older generation, particularly decision-makers, takes responsibility to limit climate change. [xxxviii]
Chairman of the Australian Renewable Energy Agency, Martijn Wilder, said, “New Zealand policymakers have taken the view that since they are borrowing money [for stimulus] from future generations the manner in which it is spent has to serve those generations.” [xxxix]
- Low-carbon solutions are better for the economy long-term
The evidence continues to build that the cost of continuing with business-as-usual is far greater long-term than the cost of taking action to prevent climate change. A Melbourne University Issues Paper published in June, 2019, gives conservative estimates of the potential economic damage from climate change to Australia at current global emissions patterns, compared to estimates of the costs of emissions reductions. The costs of business-as-usual are $584.5 billion in 2030, $762 billion in 2050 and more than $5 trillion in cumulative damages from now until 2100. The national costs of taking effective action such as a carbon price or renewable energy target would be somewhere between negligible and a fraction of the damage of inaction. [xl]
- Better for the economy in the short-medium term
In re-building an economy after a recession, the primary purpose of economic stimulus has generally been creating employment opportunities. We strongly recommend that industries be targeted which not only create the largest number of jobs locally, but also reduced greenhouse gas pollution and help keep our planet hospitable to life as we know it. There are sound economic arguments for this course of action.
- Low-carbon jobs are deployment-ready
The economics research body, ClimateWorks, suggests government stimulus measures targeted at accelerating the deployment of low-carbon technologies would create lasting benefits to society as well as jobs. In their latest research report, “Decarbonisation Futures: Solutions, actions and benchmarks for a net zero emissions Australia” [xli], mature technologies which would deliver multiple benefits include:
- Up-grades to residential and commercial buildings so they are more energy-efficient
- Accelerated deployment of large-scale renewables and battery storage
- Construction of charging stations to support electric vehicles
- Increased recycling
- Nature-based solutions to sequester carbon
According to Tim Buckley at IEEFA, modernising the national electricity grid and the use of large-scale batteries and demand response, would invite tens of billions of dollars of new renewable energy investment. With record low-interest rates and record low solar module prices, the Government can drive investment in building a deflationary, new energy system with massive energy export opportunities.
Tim Buckley speaks of “future-proofing the economy”. He writes, “Fossil fuels have met their match. Oil, coal and gas/LNG project proposals are now likely to be re-evaluated, given the heightened risk of becoming stranded with subsequent pain delivered to investors, shareholders and energy consumers alike. Fossil fuel subsidies should be removed.” (See https://carbontracker.org/reports/how-to-waste-over-half-a-trillion-dollars/)
He is referring to subsidies such as the imported diesel fuel rebate for mining companies and the perpetual oil and gas royalty “holidays”. This will not affect Australian consumers but will provide much needed revenue to help fund stimulus programs.
Tim Buckley contrasts the international 20% annual deflationary trend in the cost of renewables with the long-term wealth destruction seen in Australia’s oil and gas sector and the recent collapse of LNG and oil prices. [xlii]
The world we want to see
We believe that the Earth and all people are sacred. We believe that the lack of determined action to reduce humanity’s greenhouse gas emissions is putting at grave risk the capacity of the Earth’s ecosystems to support life as we know it.
We desire a world where human beings can flourish everywhere, where communities around the world can experience joy, abundance, meaningful work, peace, dignity and a fair share of power over decision-making. To do this, we must end the era of dominance by the few, the era of unrestrained extraction and exploitation of nature. The rights of First Peoples to self-determination and to their lands should be respected. The limits of nature must be respected so that this generation hands on a world which is more-or-less intact for the next generation.
We want to see resources redistributed to achieve greater intergenerational justice, greater justice between nations and within societies. A more equal society is a more peaceful society. A more equal world is a more peaceful world.
[ii] See particularly “Big Coal” by Guy Pearse, David McKnight & Bob Burton, 2013; and “Games of Mates” by Cameron Murray and Paul Frijters, 2017
[v] See particularly “Big Coal” by Guy Pearse, David McKnight & Bob Burton, 2013; and “Games of Mates” by Cameron Murray and Paul Frijters, 2017
[vii][vii] Institute of Public Affairs, March 10, 2020 https://ipa.org.au/ipa-today/section-487-how-activists-use-red-tape-to-stop-development-and-jobs-2020-update
[ix] The Australian https://www.theaustralian.com.au/subscribe/news/1/?sourceCode=TAWEB_WRE170_a&dest=https%3A%2F%2Fwww.theaustralian.com.au%2Fnation%2Fcoronavirus-australia-green-tape-to-be-cleared-for-recovery%2Fnews-story%2Fe57cc0deece9989b3e8530b28d03d363&memtype=anonymous&mode=premium&nk=59c617c1e6bcb278059aa9a67b5769d1-1589746995
[xi] The Australian https://www.theaustralian.com.au/subscribe/news/1/?sourceCode=TAWEB_WRE170_a&dest=https%3A%2F%2Fwww.theaustralian.com.au%2Fnation%2Fpolitics%2Fcoronavirus-calls-to-halt-state-gas-royalties-hike%2Fnews-story%2F3eff1a1d7597c97e77944df2478dbedd&memtype=anonymous&mode=premium&nk=59c617c1e6bcb278059aa9a67b5769d1-1589756773
[xiv] See particularly Big Coal by Guy Pearse, David McKnight & Bob Burton, 2013; and “Games of Mates” by Cameron Murray and Paul Frijters, 2017
[xxi] The Advertiser – Adelaide https://www.adelaidenow.com.au/subscribe/news/1/?sourceCode=AAWEB_WRE170_a&dest=https%3A%2F%2Fwww.adelaidenow.com.au%2Fnews%2Fsouth-australia%2Fbight-has-strong-potential-for-nations-fuel-security-says-resources-minister-keith-pitt%2Fnews-story%2F819d7793a5b3e6fdff8e17d76f53bf2e&memtype=anonymous&mode=premium&nk=59c617c1e6bcb278059aa9a67b5769d1-1589757870
[xxii] The Australian https://www.theaustralian.com.au/subscribe/news/1/?sourceCode=TAWEB_WRE170_a&dest=https%3A%2F%2Fwww.theaustralian.com.au%2Fnation%2Fcoronavirus-australia-green-tape-to-be-cleared-for-recovery%2Fnews-story%2Fe57cc0deece9989b3e8530b28d03d363&memtype=anonymous&mode=premium&nk=59c617c1e6bcb278059aa9a67b5769d1-1589757965
[xxvi] Inside Climate News, April 8, 2020 https://insideclimatenews.org/news/07042020/global-warming-ecosystem-biodiversity-rising-heat-species referring to Trisos, C.H. et al “The projected timing of abrupt ecological disruption from climate change” in the journal, Nature, April 8, 2020 https://www.nature.com/articles/s41586-020-2189-9
[xxxvii] Young people and women will be hit hardest p.22 https://grattan.edu.au/wp-content/uploads/2020/04/Shutdown-estimating-the-COVID-19-employment-shock-Grattan-Institute.pdf
reproduced from https://www.arrcc.org.au/a_post_covid_19_recovery with permission.
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