The full-court press

Another excerpt from the climate chapter of my book-in-progress, Economic Consequences of the Pandemic. Comments, constructive criticism and compliments all appreciated.

Economists have long been enamoured of simple and universal solutions to the problem of greenhouse gases emissions. The key to these solutions is imposing a price on emissions, through a carbon tax or an emissions trading scheme. With a carbon tax, firms are required to pay a fixed price for each ton of carbon they emit. In an emissions trading scheme, firms are required to use a permit for each ton of carbon they emit. The permits are initially auctioned, and can then be bought and sold, so that the price is determined by the cost of reducing emissions.

The appeal of a carbon price is that it does not require governments to ‘pick winners’ by determining the most cost-effective way of reducing emissions. Energy using industries will pick the cheapest source of energy, and the carbon price will ensure that low-emissions technologies are preferred. Similarly consumers don’t need to perform complicated calculations about their carbon footprint or the food-miles embodied in their groceries – products that embody lots of carbon emissions will be more expensive than alternatives that don’t.

If carbon pricing had been adopted when it was first proposed in the 1990s, it would have worked by now to greatly reduce emissions. Even the somewhat half-baked and mismanaged system introduced by the EU has put the continent well on the way to eliminating coal-fired electricity. For most of the world, however, including the US the reality is that the time for relying on a single global solution is past. Pricing carbon emissions is still important, but it will not work fast enough on its own.

Similarly, while political action is essential, the crisis is too urgent to be left to the slow processes of government, particularly in a deadlocked system like that of the United States.

What is needed now is, in basketball terminology, a full court press. The normal practice in basketball is for the defensive team to guard a zone around their goal, allowing the offensive team to bring the ball up from their half of the court. By contrast, in a full court press, the defenders seek to block opposing players for the full length of the court. The full court press enables a team with small, but energetic, players to compete against taller teams with better shooting skills.

At the beginning of the campaign to reduce CO2 emissions, the protagonists were very unequally matched. The most formidable opponent was ExxonMobil, the most valuable company in the S&P 500 until as recently as 2013. Beyond the power that naturally goes with such wealth, ExxonMobil had recruited teams of lawyers, propagandists and mercenary scientists, many of whom had previously worked for the tobacco industry.

Exxon’s oil money was a powerful force, but the initial phase of the struggle to decarbonize the economy has focused on coal. Until coal-fired electricity generation is ended, there is little chance of reducing global emissions. The next big step in decarbonization, electrification of transport, will only work if electricity generation is decarbonized first.

As recently as 2010, the task of getting the global economy off coal appeared unachievable, even though the cost of solar PV and wind was steadily declining. Coal was still the primary fuel for electricity generation in nearly all countries, and coal-fired power stations were being built at a rapid pace in China and India. A huge and complex network was (and still is) deeply involved in coal, including:

coal mining companies;

electricity generating utilities;

heavy engineering companies building power stations and supplying coal mining equipment;

railways and ports on which coal is shipped;

global banks and insurance companies that provide financial services;

institutional investors that provide equity capital;

international development banks which provide loans on favorable terms to

national export credit agencies which support exports of coal technology

national development strategies premised on exploiting resource endowments,

As the New York Times observed in 2018

coal is a powerful incumbent. It’s there by the millions of tons under the ground. Powerful companies, backed by powerful governments, often in the form of subsidies, are in a rush to grow their markets before it is too late. Banks still profit from it. Big national electricity grids were designed for it. Coal plants can be a surefire way for politicians to deliver cheap electricity — and retain their own power. In some countries, it has been a glistening source of graft.

The essence of the full court press has been an attack on every node in this network, turning its apparent strength and resilience into multiple points of vulnerability. The environmental movement has challenged every corporation, investment fund and government agency involved in promoting coal, with considerable success.

The most striking success has been the push for financial institutions of all kinds to divest from coal. A hundred of more global banks, insurers and reinsruers, pension funds and other institutional investors have announced divestment policies and gradually tightened them . Although the push to divest began in Europe and North America, it has now extended to include Japan, South Korea and Singapore. Coal mining and coal-fired power are increasingly dependent on Chinese institutions for funding.

New coal mines have been resisted both because of their damaging local environmental effects and because of their contribution to greenhouse gas emissions. Any proposal for a new coal mine even in developing countries, can count on vigorous resistance, and many proposals have been abandoned.

The millions of deaths caused by coal-fired power generation, poorly understood until recently, have become a focus of political resistance. Power stations near major cities like Beijing and Delhi have been closed, and others are likely to follow.

Heavy engineering companies have faced pressure to withdraw from destructive coal projects. This has been most effective in the case of diversified firms like GE, Siemens and Toshiba, where the reputational damage associated with coal harms their position in other markets. All three have announced their withdrawal from building coal-fired power stations.

Proposals for rail and port developments to facilitate coal exports have been resisted with some success. The Lummi Nation fought successfully to block a coal terminal proposed for Seattle in 2016 https://www.seattletimes.com/seattle-news/environment/tribes-prevail-kill-proposed-coal-terminal-at-cherry-point/ Oakland

In Australia, some major coal port proposals have been stopped. There is a continuing struggle over the Adani Group’s (fn Bravus) Carmichael project, involving a new coal mine and railway line along with an expansion of Adani’s existing coal port at Abbot Point.

As the end of coal has come into sight, attention has turned to oil and gas. The initial focus has been on the most destructive processes for producing these fuels, such as fracking and tar sand extraction, as well as on the protection of particularly precious areas such as the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.

The time has come, however, to demand an end to any activity that is inconsistent with the goal of zero net carbon emissions by 2050. That includes an end to new gas-fired power plants, electrification of all kinds of transport and the replacement of industrial processes that rely on burning carbon in any form. Governments need to commit to this goal and set phase-out dates for all such activities, as many have already done for coal and some for internal combustion engined vehicles. The pledges already made by financial institutions to stop funding coal should be extended to ensure that only projects compatible with decarbonization can attract capital investment, operating finance, and insurance.

It is too late to prevent severe damage, but there is still time to avoid climate catastrophe. If we tackle the problem with the same urgency with which at least some of us addressed the Covid pandemic, we have all the resources of skill and technology needed to limit warming to 2 degrees or less.

48 thoughts on “The full-court press

  1. “cut immigration” How does this help? The aim is to reduce net emissions to zero everywhere in the world by 2050. Stopping people living in one place rather than another makes no difference to this.

  2. Why is it so hard to quit coal? Because it has a much higher return on energy than solar or wind power, despite the claims of many to the contrary. Solar and wind power (while a good thing), would probably never get beyond 15-20% of total electricity demand in a country that could in any way be defined as developed. Europe is largely switching coal fired plants to imported gas because of the lack of return of renewable energy. Gas is actually a higher density source of energy.

    Only way to build solar panels and wind turbines is to burn a lot of oil (diesel) in the process. Because of the low return of solar and wind, as you build a lot of them, you burn an increasing amount of oil in the process. Thus defeating much of the original purpose in building them. You then need to have a fossil fuel power plant on backup for basically 100% of the capacity of the wind and solar. Batteries require raw materials to be mined using diesel powered equipment etc. Same with copper electric wiring.

    Same with electric vehicles, will probably never reach more than a fraction of total vehicles on the road and these largely affect petrol demand. Even if the world did somehow phase out petrol vehicles, the world runs on diesel and you need to make petrol to make diesel. What will then be done with the petrol? Burn it off at the refinery? Dump it in oceans? Same question with bitumen (oil byproduct) needed to seal roads for supposedly environmentally friendly electric vehicles. Concrete actually requires more energy to produce

  3. Cutting immigration to Australia WILL help both global emissions and sustainability in Australia. These are the plain facts.

    “1. In general, the macro-scale modelling found that higher levels of NOM (Net Overseas Migration) impose greater adverse impacts on the quality of our natural and built environments…

    2.The meso-scale analysis established that migrants are essentially similar to Australian residents in adopting Australian consumption patterns and lifestyles except that they congregate in particular locations, especially within Sydney, Melbourne and Perth. This geographical concentration substantially INCREASES their environmental impact. (Emphasis added.)

    3. Decreased urban water supply is a significant environmental constraint exacerbated by higher levels of NOM. Modelling shows the vulnerability of Sydney, Melbourne, Brisbane and Perth to deficits in water supply, on a NOM strategy of 260,000pa. :a view strongly supported by empirical review of State Government reports. The effect on water infrastructure investment of the most recent drought and entry to a drier, hotter climatic phase since the1990s was substantial…” – Long-term physical implications of net overseas migration: Australia in 2050 Dr Jonathan Sobels, Professor Sue Richardson, Dr Graham Turner (CSIRO), Associate Professor Alaric Maude, Dr Yan Tan, Professor Andrew Beer, Dr Zhang Wei.

    Immigration and population are not a single parameter issue in any case. It’s about more than global emissions, although point 2 above indicates that significant and/or increasing NOM into Australia will increase global total emissions. The greater issue is about region by region sustainability. Australia has no long term capacity to support a population greater than the current one at anywhere near the current living standard. We are already destroying our Australian environment at an unsustainable rate. Look at the M-D basin. Australia is not going to be any sort of refuge from climate change. Indeed, the opposite is true. We soon will be one of the worst affected nations on earth and one of the worst places to live. Food and water shortages attendant on climate change will impact Australia severely.

    What can we promise future immigrants but heatwaves, droughts and suffocating bush-fire smoke nearly every summer? And then there’s the chronic unemployment; meaning the inability to employ even the labor supply that’s already here.

    There is absolutely no way that further net immigration makes any sense for Australia or the world. Also ask our indigenous people. In the main, they do not want further immigration either. They can see first hand the central roles overpopulation (relative to scarce resources like water) and excess immigration play in destroying their fragile country and their people. A key responsibility of any settler society is to address a basic problem of centuries of colonialization: the settling of the land through immigration without Indigenous consent or consultation.

  4. David,
    You state: “Why is it so hard to quit coal? Because it has a much higher return on energy than solar or wind power, despite the claims of many to the contrary.”

    Does it? What do you base that on, David? Links/references please.

    Per a Nature Energy analysis paper titled “Estimation of global final-stage energy-return-on-investment for fossil fuels with comparison to renewable energy sources”, by Paul E. Brockway et. al., published 11 Jul 2019, the Abstract includes:

    “Under many scenarios, fossil fuels are projected to remain the dominant energy source until at least 2050. However, harder-to-reach fossil fuels require more energy to extract and, hence, are coming at an increasing ‘energy cost’. Associated declines in fossil fuel energy-return-on-investment ratios at first appear of little concern, given that published estimates for oil, coal and gas are typically above 25:1. However, such ratios are measured at the primary energy stage and should instead be estimated at the final stage where energy enters the economy (for example, electricity and petrol). Here, we calculate global time series (1995–2011) energy-return-on-investment ratios for fossil fuels at both primary and final energy stages. We concur with common primary-stage estimates (~30:1), but find very low ratios at the final stage: around 6:1 and declining. This implies that fossil fuel energy-return-on-investment ratios may be much closer to those of renewables than previously expected and that they could decline precipitously in the near future.”
    See: https://www.nature.com/articles/s41560-019-0425-z

    Renewable energy technologies may soon provide a better energy-return-on-investment than fossil fuel resources.

    Studies show that solar PV panels generally produce between 10 and 20 times as much energy as is used in their manufacture.

    Wind turbines have similar energy-return-on-investment, generally producing between 15 and 30 times the energy used to manufacture and install the turbines.
    See RenewEconomy post “Busting the myth on energy returns: Renewables to beat fossil fuels”, dated 17 July 2019.

    If ERoI is less than 6:1, then some studies suggest that industrial civilization is locked into a death spiral where an ever increasing fraction of its economic output (GDP) is spent on energy at the cost of an eroding standard of living.
    See my comment at: https://johnquiggin.com/2020/12/01/the-path-to-decarbonization/comment-page-2/#comment-231386

    Most of the easy to extract fossil fuel resources have already been extracted and burnt. We now have this problem that is depletion, and that leads to diminishing economic returns and declining ERoI. We will never run out of minerals, but we will run out of cheap fossil fuels and high-grade ores.

    Electrical devices are much more energy efficient. Roughly two-thirds of the embodied energy in fossil fuels is wasted – only about a third typically does useful work – see the NREL energy flow diagram: https://cleantechnica.com/2020/11/13/what-does-bill-gates-favorite-energy-guru-vaclav-smil-get-wrong/

    You state: “Same with electric vehicles, will probably never reach more than a fraction of total vehicles on the road and these largely affect petrol demand. Even if the world did somehow phase out petrol vehicles, the world runs on diesel and you need to make petrol to make diesel.”

    Global ‘peak oil’, ‘peak gas’ and ‘peak coal’ are inevitable. Either humanity finds adequate alternative energy solutions that are long-term sustainable, affordable, rapidly deployable and low GHG emissions, or human civilisation becomes energy starved.

    The all-time peak of global oil production (‘conventional’ + ‘unconventional’) may have already occurred in Nov 2018. We will only know for sure in hindsight, but that will already be too late for our civilisation’s energy needs if there are no adequate alternatives in place. The COVID-19 crisis has masked the post- ‘peak oil’ consequences by destroying significant demand.

  5. John Quiggin says DECEMBER 6, 2020 AT 4:54PM (to an apparently now deleted first post?):

    Stopping people living in one place rather than another makes no difference to this.

    Sure, if per capita emissions are the same in either place.

    Places are not all the same though.

    if per capita emissions are less at the destination it makes for a positive difference, but it is a most unlikely major choice of destination as it implies choosing a step down in affluent lifestyle opportunities. These are major destinations for mass tourism from affluent countries not for migration.

    If per capita emissions are greater at the destination, a most likely major choice due to improved affluent lifestyle opportunities, then with such migration total emissions rise far more at the destination than they decrease at the departure point. The driving aspiration is to have the lifetime lifestyle opportunities of the new locality not to make the new locality just like the old.

    The answer is that the places with affluent lifestyle opportunities, those wealthy highly ‘developed’ ‘advanced’ economy countries, quickly and steeply reduce their citizens’ per capita consumption, environmental footprint, and ghg emissions, all of which extend heavily beyond their borders into poorer ‘undeveloped’, rapaciously exploited and economically oppressed countries.

    The change must be rapid or shall be forced by unattractive circumstance. To believe that the current ‘good’ life in affluent countries can somehow extend to all across the planet, that there is enough stuff to go round, that there are enough ecological services, that there is a technological fix waiting in the wings to allow continuing global bau growth is cornucopian Reaganomics on steroids.

    Humans now must live on a flat planet. Either it is flat with equitable distribution of resources and opportunity or it is out of kilter and going to buckle badly. Mass migration as occurs today serves only two things: 1) it serves to tip the planet more out of kilter; 2) it serves to accelerate the accumulation of vast wealth by already rich plutocrat interests vested in mass migration in destination countries.

    https :// biophyseco.org/biophysical-economics/what-is-biophysical-economics/

  6. Good post, can’t say the same for the comments.

    Two points on carbon taxes. One, it may be possible to get to net zero without them – bu beyond that, in the (now sadly necessary) domain of net sequestration, it’s hard to see how carbon removal can work without a carbon tax or equivalent subsidies. In an era of low interest rates, some reafforestation will be economic without a carbon tax, and some changes in agriculture, but these are unlikely to be enough. Net zero is a long way ahead, but we need to develop sequestration technology now, and keep the future needs in mind in crafting policies today.

    Two: a second-best option that’s not been explored outside shipping is *sectoral* carbon levy-and-rebate schemes, whee there is a clear technical way forward and an economic barrier. Candidates are steel, cement, and shipping: the former through concentrated and immobile production, he latter through the monopsonistic chokepoints of access to key ports like Rotterdam and Long Beach. It might also work for aviation, though the technology isn’t there yet.

    Coal: Why have its strong defences crumbled, unlike those of oil and gas? As JQ says, it’s a well-entrenched and well-connected industry. But what the coal barons failed to do was invest in good PR and denialist smoke.

    The decline in coal needs a chart, possibly starts/retirements of global ooal generating capacity.

    Maybe a text box on the Sierra Club/Bloomberg campaign against US coal plants, before the economic case became self-evident. it was community-based, and relied heavily on the pollution case.

    Oil: it’s a worse pollution killer than coal, because the fumes are at lung level. IIRC lobbying by the medical profession was significant in the adoption by London of its pioneering(but sadly still exceptional) low-emission policies. Worth checking if parallel efforts by the American Lung Association played a similar part in California.

    “The next big step in decarbonization, electrification of transport, will only work if electricity generation is decarbonized first.” Careful here. Coal generation is ca, 40% efficient, gas ca. 60%, ICEVs ca. 15%. So switching to EVs cuts emissions in half even if the grid supply doesn’t change – and it is changing everywhere. No need to wait for a green grid before starting on cars and trucks. The gain is even larger on air pollution, since gas burns more or less without any.

  7. A huge and complex network was (and still is) deeply involved in coal, including: …

    sponsored/funded/partner academic institutions

    Two highly recursive network nexus for everything else on the network list are:

    political parties

    msm

  8. If you want to know what is happening with European gas usage over the last decade either overall, or just for electricity production, the data is available, and unlike in the US, it is renewables that are the big winner in the electricity sector in the last decade, gas is flat or declining.

    https://ec.europa.eu/eurostat/databrowser/bookmark/f054f204-d925-42ce-92bd-53aaaa3a554d?lang=en

    Worldwide the story is similar, but not quite as positive: relative share of gas+oil electricity generation in the last 10 years is flat (oil has decreased a lot, gas increased slightly).
    https://www.bp.com/en/global/corporate/energy-economics/statistical-review-of-world-energy/electricity.html

    Note that ‘renewables’ in the BP electricity graph excludes hydro and is mostly, but not entirely, wind+solar: this is now over 20% in Europe. And considerably more than that in certain countries.

    In absolute terms, renewables are increasing fast enough worldwide that fossil electricity production is roughly stable, despite growth in overall electricity use.

    Not anywhere near enough for net zero by 2040, but also RCP8.5 now looks very unlikely.

  9. Ben McMillan: Thanks for the links. The German data refute the argument that renewables need more and more gas for firming. In fact, very rapid growth in the former has gone along with roughly flat gas consumption. iI’s possible that without the renewables, gas would have fallen, but any coupling is clearly weak. SFIK Germany has not invested much in storage, and the P2G plants are too small to make a difference yet. Possible explanations; imports; the growth of renewables has meant better geographical coverage and better smoothing; more light-wind wind turbines and single-axis tracker solar plants with higher capacity factors.

  10. By extension cutting immigration to lower emissions presumes that zero immigration = zero emissions – a deeply flawed argument.

    The use of xenophobia and racism to solve a structural problem has reached its zenith in the US, with the rise and fall of Trump.

    Address the issue on its merits and leave the dog whistling and race baiting in the bin, where it belongs.

  11. The report on immigration contains many caveats eg

    “Migrant consumption behaviour mirrors native Australian patterns

    We therefore believe that it is reasonable to assume that migrants adopt similar consumption patterns of natural resources and generate similar waste streams as the broad Australian community. The implication is that we can use data about consumption by the general populace and apply it to migrant impacts. In saying this, we note that we have no specific information about the consumption behaviours of the growing number of long-term temporary migrants. Most are students or 457 visa holders. They may well behave differently. We cannot know, or make adjustments for, the composition of the migrant flow over the next four decades.”

    Elsewhere the report has been highly contested by experts.

  12. A bit more on the report “RESEARCH INTO THE LONG-TERM PHYSICAL IMPLICATIONS OF NET OVERSEAS MIGRATION: AUSTRALIA IN 2050”

    The report appears to only be available on the Macrobusiness website and this link is on the Productivity Commission report

    Click to access sub033-water-reform-2020.pdf

    Macrobusiness is a fund manager and its opinion writers are financial advisors linked to the funds managed – they play the market.

  13. Australia can make no contribution to solving global greenhouse gas emissions by the process of further net immigration into Australia. Australia’s per capita emissions are still close to the highest in the world. Immigrants tend to come from a lower emissions economy and tend to participate in generating higher emissions once in Australia due to the structural aspects of our economy and how it supports people.

    Australia also can make no extra contribution to feeding the world by taking net immigrants because a portion of our food production will simply need to be switched from exporting food to consumption domestically. We are already at our sustainable food production limits. Indeed, we have exceeded them. We only have to look at the massive damage to the M-D basin and the increasing droughts and drought regimes of Australia.

    I refer above to net immigrants. We can take enough immigrants and refugees to balance emigration and natural increase/decline. I am here advocating a steady state for Australia’s population rather than further growth. Anything above that rate will have disastrous consequences for all people living in Australia.

    All settler immigrants and settler immigrant descendants into Australia are part of colonial settler society, A key responsibility of any settler society is to address the basic problem of centuries of colonization: the settling of the land through immigration without Indigenous consent or consultation. There is nothing more arrogant, and in its own way also racist, than the current pro-immigration growth lobby who assume that they have the right to dictate to Australia’s indigenous people, who are still continually being pushed aside, that this country should take more and more immigrants. The indigenous people know their country (meaning the land) is being further destroyed by settler immigrants, new and descended. Ask indigenous Australians if they want more and more immigrants while their own issues are still being pushed aside. What are you going to do when the say “no”, call them “nativists” and illustrate your own high-handed arrogance and racism?

  14. James Wimberley (re your comment at DECEMBER 6, 2020 AT 10:29 PM),
    You state: “The decline in coal needs a chart, possibly starts/retirements of global ooal generating capacity.”

    Are you not aware of the annual surveys by Global Energy Monitor/Sierra Club/Greenpeace/CREA, with the latest report titled “Boom and Bust 2020: Tracking the Global Coal Plant Pipeline” published in Mar 2020? Does Figure 1 on page 6 of the report suit your needs?
    https://endcoal.org/2020/03/new-report-global-coal-power-under-development-declined-for-fourth-year-in-a-row/

    You state: “Careful here. Coal generation is ca, 40% efficient, gas ca. 60%, ICEVs ca. 15%. So switching to EVs cuts emissions in half even if the grid supply doesn’t change – and it is changing everywhere. No need to wait for a green grid before starting on cars and trucks.”

    It depends on how dirty/inefficient the electricity generators and electricity transmission/delivery systems are.

    “Switching to an electric car in most parts of the world will cut emissions, according to new research that debunks claims electric vehicles (EVs) are only greener if powered by renewable electricity.

    Researchers at Radboud University in the Netherlands concluded electric cars are almost always greener than petrol cars, even when fossil fuels are used to generate most of the electricity needed to charge them.”
    https://inews.co.uk/news/electric-vehicles-ev-petrol-climate-environment-411182

    You state: “The gain is even larger on air pollution, since gas burns more or less without any.”

    IMO, the argument that gas is a ‘transition fuel’ is no longer valid – it’s dangerous propaganda by fossil fuel proponents. The scientific evidence I see indicates humanity needs to rapidly ramp down all fossil fuel extraction from NOW on and cease within one decade for coal and gas and within two decades for oil, or catastrophic climate change (+3 °C global mean warming above pre-industrial age, or more) will likely end human civilisation within this century.

  15. Geoff Miell: You saved me, and more’s the point JQ, the trouble of digging out the chart. The suggestion was for his book, not my edification. Images are more powerful than words.

  16. Denmark. Another nail. Yet how do we bury the nail-puller I just learnt about that is Carbon Leakage -“you can say there’s a leakage rate of 50% in the estimate that they have in their model”. **

    Denmark is with you JQ, on the full court press, even  “the cancellation of the ongoing 8th licensing round and all future rounds to extract oil and gas.”^2. 

    And is this what yiu had in mind for a full court press example …  “But other than that, there are a lot of small initiatives that cover many different sectors.”.^1.

    And if Australia adopted a 70% by 2030 target as Denmark has, what potential will our gdp reduction be please?

    ^1. “Denmark Becomes a Leader in Climate Change Mitigation

    November 18, 2020

    “Denmark’s parliament recently voted to make its carbon reduction plan law. Denmark has one of the most aggressive climate plans of any country, aiming to reduce emissions to 70% of its 1990 carbon levels within 10 years.”

    “In that regard, we estimate that it would probably cost around 1% of Denmark’s GDP by 2030. Which, compared to many other types of costs, is not a huge amount, given that we are also expecting growth in GDP until 2030.”…

    ** “Possibility of Carbon Leakage
    According to a report from the Danish Economic Council, if we reduce emissions by one ton in Denmark, half a ton extra will be emitted elsewhere in the world due to leakage from relocation. So you can say there’s a leakage rate of 50% in the estimate that they have in their model.”…

    … “But other than that, there are a lot of small initiatives that cover many different sectors. “…

    Jette Jacobsen
    Vice Chair of The Danish Council on Climate Change
    https://www.brinknews.com/denmark-becomes-a-leader-in-climate-change/
    ****

    ^2. “Denmark introduces cutoff date of 2050 for oil and gas extraction in the North Sea, cancels all future licensing rounds

    Published 04-12-2020

    “A broad majority in the Danish Parliament has reached a deal on the future of fossil extraction in the North Sea, leading to the cancellation of the ongoing 8th licensing round and all future rounds to extract oil and gas. The deal also establishes a final phase-out date of fossil extraction by 2050 and lays out plans for a just transition of impacted workers.”

    “6. – In June, the Danish Parliament passed a Climate Act with an overwhelming majority. The Act, among other things, establishes a legally binding target of 70 pct. GHG reductions by 2030”
    https://en.kefm.dk/news/news-archive/2020/dec/denmark-introduces-cutoff-date-of-2050-for-oil-and-gas-extraction-in-the-north-sea-cancels-all-future-licensing-rounds

  17. The full-court press ought to include stopping all national and international non-essential activities which give off CO2 emissions. I know we would all struggle to meet that high benchmark. That would include stopping all non-essential international and national travel other than that powered by non-CO2 emitting technologies. It would mean discontinuing the ownership of pets (each medium sized dog is responsible for emissions equal to a medium sized petrol SUV due to the meat and pet food production). It would mean markedly cutting meat in all Western diets. It would mean ceasing large events (arts and sports). It would mean cutting down on going out for meals and drinks etc. It would mean opening more unread books on our bookshelves and reading them rather than going on the phone and internet, down to the local hotels, restaurants or to the beach. It would mean getting rid of Christmas as a consumer orgy and getting rid of Christmas lights. There are a host of other things I could mention. At the other end of the scale it would require powers and superpowers giving up geostrategic competition.

    But people and nations will not give up these things until forced to by natural forces. Bring on the collapse as the only path to change, one almost has to say. Accumulated empirical evidence to date indicates this the only way we will truly consume less. We have to find a way to collapse wisely, gracefully, peacefully and in an orderly fashion, if we can. We have to gracefully accept much lower living standards. I bet none of you so far have given up anything significant in the consumption stakes. So, all talk and no action? I myself have not given up enough and I cannot convince my loved ones to give up enough, without potentially relationship-ending estrangements that is. Believe me, I have tried… and backed off. I think we are all completely kidding ourselves. We are not going to do anything substantial until forced by natural forces.

  18. James Wimberley (re your comment at DECEMBER 7, 2020 AT 10:41 AM),
    You state: “You saved me, and more’s the point JQ, the trouble of digging out the chart.”

    I’ve just spotted this tweet from Adam Tooze (retweeted by Bruce Robertson) that includes a graph of coal plant additions and retirements attributed to Global Energy Monitor that includes the first half of 2020. Net change is negative in 2020 H1.

    There’s a link in the tweet to The Economist piece titled “The dirtiest fossil fuel is on the back foot”, dated Dec 3 (paywalled).

  19. James: AFAICT, the specific mix of renewables and connections to other countries help Germany to load balance. But they are at a much lower percentage of wind+solar than, say, South Australia, so they aren’t really pushing the boundaries that much.

    South Australia has actually followed a similar pattern; gas use hasn’t changed that much, the renewables have just replaced coal and imports from other states.

    https://opennem.org.au/energy/sa1/?range=all&interval=half-year

  20. John,

    The second to last paragraph is confusing. (I had to read it a few times, anyway.)

    “The time has come […] to demand an end to any activity that is inconsistent with the goal of zero net carbon emissions by 2050. That includes […], electrification of all kinds of transport and the replacement of industrial processes that rely on burning carbon in any form.”

    We don’t want to end those things, we want more of them–don’t we?

  21. John Quiggin,
    Your last paragraph in your post above states: “It is too late to prevent severe damage, but there is still time to avoid climate catastrophe. If we tackle the problem with the same urgency with which at least some of us addressed the Covid pandemic, we have all the resources of skill and technology needed to limit warming to 2 degrees or less.”

    I guess it depends on what is defined as “climate catastrophe”. Warming is already around +1.2 °C relative to pre-industrial age and accelerating. IMO, it looks increasingly likely we will overshoot +2.0 °C, around 2050, unless something drastic happens very soon.

    Per “Climate Reality Check 2020” by Ian Dunlop and David Spratt (page 19, after the section heading: “1.5°C is not a safe target”):

    “• The Great Barrier Reef is in a death spiral: at the current level of global warming, it will bleach on average once every three-to-four years, whereas recovery takes a decade or more.
    • West Antarctic Ice Sheet (WAIS) glaciers have passed a tipping point. The Paris Agreement temperature target of 1.5°C is sufficient to drive runaway retreat of WAIS.
    • Parts of East Antarctica might be similarly unstable.
    • Three-quarters by volume of summer Arctic sea-ice has already been lost.
    • One-quarter of the Himalayan & Tien Shan ice sheets have already been lost.
    • The forest systems are oscillating to non-forest ecosystems in eastern, southern & central Amazonia.”
    https://www.climaterealitycheck.net/

    The Greenland Ice Sheet ‘tipping point’ is estimated to be around +1.6 °C. That would mean a sea level rise of around 6 m alone (stabilized over centuries). Add in the loss of the West Antarctic Ice Sheet and non-Antarctic glaciers, and that would increase sea levels further.

    Posted today at The Guardian is an open letter from scientists and academics including Prof Gesa Weyhenmeyer and Prof Will Steffen, headlined “A warning on climate and the risk of societal collapse”. It begins with:

    “As scientists and scholars from around the world, we call on policymakers to engage with the risk of disruption and even collapse of societies. After five years failing to reduce emissions in line with the Paris climate accord, we must now face the consequences. While bold and fair efforts to cut emissions and naturally drawdown carbon are essential, researchers in many areas consider societal collapse a credible scenario this century. Different views exist on the location, extent, timing, permanence and cause of disruptions, but the way modern societies exploit people and nature is a common concern.”
    https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2020/dec/06/a-warning-on-climate-and-the-risk-of-societal-collapse

    Will this new warning from some scientists and scholars be heeded now, or ignored by policymakers, business leaders and most of society like many other warnings over many decades past?

  22. More to the point on carbon pricing: the EU carbon price collapsing between 2011-2013 probably partly explains the big dip in gas generation around that time. That is, it meant that renewables started replacing gas, rather than coal.

    In the short term, this is the main thing that carbon prices do: promote switching of fuel, in this case gas vs. coal.

    It isn’t clear, though, how much work carbon prices really do in the long term compared to things like renewable energy targets and direct action to prevent fossil infrastructure being built.

    But along the lines suggested by the OP, if you are serious, you do all of the things.

  23. Geoff,

    I can answer your question. No, it won’t be heeded now by policymakers, business leaders and most of society. Everything and (almost) everyone will proceed blindly onward to total collapse. I predicted this as a layperson (from the science and from a sociological position) at least 20 years ago. All I got was being shunned and pilloried, in the small and obscure circles I moved in.

    Anyone who warned of the real dangers risked loss of career and/or loss of all social relevance almost straight away and it is still the same today. Being a truth-teller in this matter is career and social suicide. It takes persons of rare courage and a complete lack of careerism motives to stick to such an unpopular but empirically justified message. But all such efforts were and are futile and a mere sabotage of one’s own life chances in a society this blind. I predicted even that result too but persisted in my efforts for quite a while. Now, I find it hard to care any more. I just try to not do the really damaging and unnecessary stuff myself and live as quietly as possible. I wonder when the penny is going to drop for the masses and who they are going to blame.

  24. Ben, note electricity consumption is now 10% higher than on that NEM graph. It leaves off distributed solar.

  25. Ronald: there is a ‘Solar (rooftop)’ category in OpenNEM, I think they are actually trying to account for distributed solar using modelling (as it is not dispatched/visible to AEMO). I’m assuming this is what APVI and the BoM data is used for. There appears to be a debate about how accurate that model is though.

  26. “I guess it depends on what is defined as “climate catastrophe”. ” Roughly, I mean heating that renders large parts of the planet unlivable for humans. Losing the Great Barrier Reef, would be bad but not catastrophic on this scale. There’s still a chance of saving it, though, so let’s push as hard as we can.

  27. John Quiggin. Thanks very much for these drafts.

    Off topic in terms of the specifics of this chapter but very much on topic I believe for the whole climate change issue is this recent article arguing for the formal adoption of the Anthropocene era concept by the geological community (2Nov20): https://www.nature.com/articles/s43247-020-00049-8. The full title is: ‘Extraordinary human energy consumption and resultant geological impacts beginning around 1950 CE initiated the proposed Anthropocene Epoch’. It is normally paywalled but a copy has been provided to me by one of the authors with permission to share to interested parties.

    The article is written as a comprehensive argument for the adoption of the Anthropocene as a geological concept. It provides an extraordinarily detained snapshot of the state of the planet in terms of climate change, biospecies extinction, environmental pollution, energy use, coastal management, river re-engineering, and so on, all brought together under the Anthropocene concept. I think it’s a beautiful piece of science and will be of special interest to anyone interested in science, who are more likely not to be daunted by the dense, rich text.

    Personally I think it offers a fresh insight into climate change by setting it into the framework of geological time. The insight, which can make sense for anyone with a basic grasp of earth history, is that since about 1950 humankind has created a permanent mark in the geological record, a new era equivalent (in lay terms) to the ice ages, and even the age of dinosaurs (technically the Pleistocene and the Mesozoic).

    A companion book is Paleoclimatology: From Snowball Earth to the Anthropocene by Colin Summerhayes (2020) which is likely to be the textbook for the new discipline of Palaeoclimatology: https://www.amazon.com/Paleoclimatology-Snowball-Anthropocene-Colin-Summerhayes-ebook/dp/B08BRK5D7W

    And the best fiction to read as a companion volume is Kim Stanley Robinson’s anti-dystopian new book, The Ministry of the Future, which adds a very readable commentary on macroeconomics to a fictional story about dealing with climate change emergencies: https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/50998056-the-ministry-for-the-future

  28. John Quiggin,
    You state in the second last paragraph of your post: “The time has come, however, to demand an end to any activity that is inconsistent with the goal of zero net carbon emissions by 2050.”

    The goal of “net zero carbon emissions by 2050” is at high risk of not meeting the Paris goal of keeping “well below 2 °C”.

    In the Nature paper “Three years to safeguard our climate”, by Christiana Figueres et. al., published on 28 Jun 2017, there is a graph headlined “Carbon Crunch” that shows there is a mean budget of around 600 gigatonnes (Gt) of carbon dioxide left to emit before the planet warms dangerously, by more than 1.5–2 °C. There are three 600 Gt budget curves shown: blue 2016 peak to 2045 net-zero; orange 2020 peak to 2040 net-zero; and purple 2025 peak to 2035 net-zero. Stretching the budget to 800 Gt, with a 2020 peak, buys another 10 years (i.e. net-zero by 2050), but at a greater risk of exceeding the temperature limit (i.e. overshooting 2 °C).
    https://www.nature.com/news/three-years-to-safeguard-our-climate-1.22201

    In the YouTube video titled “Will Steffen – Climate Change 2020 – Why we are facing an emergency – April 2020” published by Renew on Apr 23, duration 1:02:48, Earth System scientist Professor Will Steffen said from time interval 0:27:11:

    “And yet we have to turn around this really, really fast. In fact, that’s how fast we have to turn it around.”

    [shows the slide titled “Emission Reduction Pathways for Meeting the Paris Target” from the Nature paper referred above]

    “So, the year we peak emissions is really critical. Ah, we can’t peak them in 2016 because that’s already gone. Ah, we’re up to 2019, we’re into 2020. Certainly 2020 will be less than 2019, and that’s thanks to COVID-19. So, if we can then build on that, and use that as a start to a deep emission reduction trajectory, and get to net-zero by 2040, not by 2050, we will be, ah, in the middle of the Paris target, somewhere between 1.5 and 2. So that’s our hope – that’s what we have to aim for. But if we dither around for just five more years, just another electoral cycle or two, to 2025, then we must decarbonize by 2035 – in 10 years – that’s impossible. So, this again is just yet another way to say that we are in an emergency, in an emergency, and that is: we cannot miss the opportunity that COVID-19 is giving us. If we go back to business as usual, which some governments are already saying, we will miss the Paris targets. So again, this is just another way of saying: we are in a climate emergency.”

  29. JQ in comments: “Losing the Great Barrier Reef, would be bad but not catastrophic on this scale. There’s still a chance of saving it, though, so let’s push as hard as we can.”
    i fear the Barrier Reef biome, like many others, is now too far gone to restore to its pre-Anthropocene status. What may be feasible is recreating a different living coral reef, with species and varieties imported from warmer waters like the Red Sea, or bred or GM’d in labs. Not perfect. but a lot better than a bleached desert. The Reef is Australia’s Amazon rainforest. Both need full court rescue presses of their own.

  30. Slightly OT,as JQ did not raise the front-loading problem in the book extract, but pertinent to the theme. A German-Danish team have turned the problem on its head: https://www.pv-magazine.com/2020/12/07/ramping-up-renewables-now-could-save-europe-e363bn-by-2050/

    Instead of early action as a headache, since triilions in investment have to be brought forward, they argue that once you introduce a carbon budget constraint, the argument goes the other way. if you dither now, you become committed to an *earlier* net zero date and therefore an earlier crash programme in the 2030s. This would work out €363 bn dearer (I love the €3 bn) in Europe than starting now. The reason is the carbon budget now allows a flatter glide-path to net zero in 2050, benefiting from years of future improvements in technology.

    This is a very neat debating point, though politically it’s too clever by half. If Greta gets her way and we have a strong start in the 2020s, this will be seen as a springboard for more of the same in the 2030s, and getting closer to 1.5 than 2 degrees of ultimate warming. (The difference includes keeping some coral reefs or none.) The green industry lobbies and parties will be stronger, their fossil counterparts weaker. Once we start winning. there’s no good reason to slow down.

  31. Just as solar and wind are ramping up exponentially, coal and other fossil fuels will decline exponentially. The problem is that in both cases we are at the beginning of the S curve, just past the inflection point , and it is only now becoming clear where it is heading.

    Pretty good news all around actually.

  32. The idea that we can rescue biomes by interventions that are “re-speciating” efforts is a dubious one. By re-speciating I mean the adding of new species in the eco-engineering manner suggested by James Wimberley at December 8, 2020 at 3:24 am.

    The general ecological record of humans is that we wreck everything we touch. That is scarcely too strong a statement. The correct path in general is simply to withdraw from habitats and let them recover and adapt while at the same time stopping the prime damage we are causing, in this case CO2 emissions. There may be a case for controlling and eradicating introduced pest species in a very careful way. There never will be a case for introducing more exotic species. Almost every case of introducing species into an ecology which we imperfectly understand (which is all of them) turns out to be another ecological disaster.

    When humans realize they can’t help nature and need to simply step aside in many cases and have less impact then that perhaps will be the day things start to change for the better. Our hubris, our interfering busy-bodiness with respect to evolved nature IS our main problem. It’s time for humanity to learn a little humility. Nature is about to teach us a series of harsh lessons for the damage done by our overweening intellectual pride and base unleashing of greed as our guiding principle. One of the lessons we need to learn is to realize we can’t do better than nature, at least not in the matter of complex ecosystems.

    “Nature to be commanded, must be obeyed.” – Francis Bacon.

    Any project, including an attempted help of nature itself, must run according to and with the laws of nature, not against them. In the case of complex ecosystems which we do not fully understand, introductions of new parameters (eg. new species) where we do not understand all of the existing parameters / species, and their interactions, will almost certainly be disastrous. In that manner we will pile disaster on disaster. That seems to be our standard operating mode when we operate with excess hubris. We need to change.

  33. The sheer mass of the GBR (over 2,900 individual reefs and 900 islands stretching for over 2,300 kilometres over an area of approximately 344,400 square kilometres) suggest that the only viable solution is to reduce/stop emissions.

  34. On 24 Nov 2019 at the Bowral Memorial Hall, it was standing room only for people who came to hear and see Ian Dunlop and Dr John Hewson address the community on climate change.
    https://www.southernhighlandnews.com.au/story/6510858/no-more-room-to-stand-climate-change-forum-attracts-large-crowd/

    The YouTube video titled “Ian Dunlop – Guest Speaker at the Bowral Climate Forum”, published by WinZero Wingecarribee on Jun 17, duration 26:06, shows the presentation by Club of Rome Member Ian Dunlop, including PowerPoint slides.

    From time interval 0:10:28, Ian Dunlop talks about what it will take to stay below the Paris limits.

    From time interval 0:11:11, Ian Dunlop shows a slide indicating to stay below the Paris limits, with a 50% chance of success for holding at 1.5 °C, or 66% chance for 2 °C, no new fossil fuel projects can be built, and a managed decline of the fossil fuel industry.

    From time interval 0:12:40, Ian Dunlop said:

    “Now, you know, if you get on an aircraft to fly to Melbourne, you don’t expect a 50:50 chance of getting there, or a 60% chance – you wouldn’t do it! So why it is we are prepared to gamble the future of human civilisation on a 50:50 chance of achieving it – this is crazy stuff!”

    From time interval 0:12:58, a graph is displayed showing the probability of success of keeping below 2 °C. For 90% chance of success, we have already used up the carbon budget. The carbon budgets for 66%, 50% and 33% chance are also shown. The graph shows the urgency of getting off fossil fuels as soon as possible.

    I’d suggest these issues highlighted and discussed by Ian Dunlop in the video are not well known by the general community, and many well-meaning people are glibly advocating “net-zero GHG emissions by 2050” without fully understanding that that goal has a much higher probability of not succeeding and the grave consequences associated with it.

  35. Geoff,

    Correct. All those in the “don’t be alarmist tent” just don’t get it. When an alarm for a deadly threat goes off you should act straight away. In normal parlance you “head for the exits” straight away. We should be heading for the exits from capitalism and from CO2 emissions straight away. The fact that we are still not doing this mean billions will die, probably before 2050 and certainly before 2100. Maybe the first billion will have to die before people will act. It’s beginning to look like that. Of course, delaying action that long means several more billions will die.

    My advice to people is to cut all non-essential consumption markedly. A huge amount of our consumption is not only non-essential but highly indulgent. It’s very likely that 50% of the economy or more, especially with a stringent definition of non-essential, is non-essential. A portion of that consumption should be forgone and a portion of it redirected to the renewable energy and processes economy build-out plus to remediation, reafforestation and so on.

    Hands-off market solutions are no longer possible. Direct statist intervention in social and market behaviors is required.J.Q. himself has essentially said and written that.

    https://reneweconomy.com.au/too-late-for-gradual-transition-quiggin-calls-for-coal-exit-by-2030/

    “Australia’s transition away from excessive carbon pollution must begin with an urgent and coordinated phase-out of thermal coal production and use,” Professor Quiggin says in the report published by the progressive think tank The Australia Institute.

    “Fortunately, with enough advance notice and an appropriate transition plan, the thermal coal industry can be phased-out over time without any significant dislocation to workers.” – Quiggin”

    “The magnitude of the climate crisis and the failure to respond in Australia means that a gradual, market-driven transition to a carbon-free economy is no longer an option,” (Quiggin’s) paper says.

    Those precise words. “A gradual, market-driven transition to a carbon-free economy is no longer an option.” Of course, I was saying 20 years ago that this would be the case. I predicted that neoliberal or any other capitalist market economics would never make the change in time. Seems I was right all along. Often right, seldom listened to! Story of my life and that of a lot of other dissidents against capitalism.

  36. Ikonoclast,

    says DECEMBER 8, 2020 AT 12:06PM: “…Those precise words. “A gradual, market-driven transition to a carbon-free economy is no longer an option.” Of course, I was saying 20 years ago that this would be the case. I predicted that neoliberal or any other capitalist market economics would never make the change in time. Seems I was right all along. Often right, seldom listened to! Story of my life and that of a lot of other dissidents against capitalism.”

    On reading that after having earlier read this:

    Ikonoclast DECEMBER 7, 2020 AT 11:43AM: “I myself have not given up enough and I cannot convince my loved ones to give up enough, without potentially relationship-ending estrangements that is. Believe me, I have tried… and backed off. I think we are all completely kidding ourselves. We are not going to do anything substantial until forced by natural forces.”

    I chuckled at an image I chanced on last night posted to /r/collapse/, and trust you will also find it humorous:

    Related to the sorry plight by way of concept and image associations linked to that of the orangutang, this report out today:

    “More palm oil, more problems – As our global population grows, demand for vegetable oils is expected to leap by 46 per cent by 2050”
    https://thenewdaily.com.au/news/national/2020/12/08/palm-oil-alternatives/

    “Free West Papua!” “Save the rainforests!” “Save the reef!” – When?

  37. Svante,

    The image is humorous, although the orangutan is better looking than me. I also have more training wheels on my bicycle.

    akarog,

    Climate change doomers do give up, eventually. Climate change optimists never start, never do anything.

  38. So you in erring again might say rog. It’s nice to hear you’re so relaxed about exemptionalist dreaming hung over from prior centuries continuing…

    Assured of certain certainties,
    The conscience of a blackened street
    Impatient to assume the world.

    I am moved by fancies that are curled
    Around these images, and cling:
    The notion of some infinitely gentle
    Infinitely suffering thing.

    Wipe your hand across your mouth, and laugh;
    The worlds revolve like ancient women
    Gathering fuel in vacant lots.

    Whereas…

    Though wise men at their end know dark is right,
    Because their words had forked no lightning they
    Do not go gentle into that good night.

  39. Svante,

    Might be nice to use quotes and attribute them. I think I see the words of T.S. Eliot and Dylan Thomas there. I’d read most of their output by the time I was 16… but then I was a strange kid.

  40. Such niceties clearly not necessary now and here! And rarely seen in frequent popular culture instances for 70 years and more.

  41. Iko: human-aided regeneration can work. See the very large (32 km2) Tijuca urban park in Rio de Janeiro (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tijuca_Forest). The native forest was cleared for coffee plantation by the colonists, then coffee-growing shifted inland and the plantations failed. There were also concerns about water supply. In 1861 the last Emperor of Brazil commissioned a Major Archer to replant the land as forest. Over the next decades, Archer and seven slaves (whose names we have) set to work. Archer wasn’t a botanist and planted whatever was available, including exotica from the botanical garden, but it worked, aided by seeds brought in by wildlife that just showed up. The forest is now almost as diverse as the remnants of virgin Mata Atlantica. Slavery was finally abolished in Brazil only in 1888.

    Photo by me from an old blog post: http://www.samefacts.com/wp-content/uploads/2010/04/Tijucapark.jpg

  42. Mary Robinson: While the World Health Organization and others have used the term “pandemic fatigue,” I urge caution in applying this label. We must not conflate the anxiety associated with lockdowns – often linked to economic concerns – with an unwillingness to adhere to public-health guidance.

    Millions of people around the world are facing significant adversity. Governments must provide adequate financial and social protection, so that the poor and marginalized do not feel they must choose between protecting their health and providing for their families. And they must address the deeper social inequalities that the pandemic has exacerbated.

    When we consider climate change, what is sometimes construed as “fatigue” may actually be the high psychological and even physical toll of recognizing the seriousness of the threat we face. This is why I have such admiration for the young people, indigenous activists, and other dogged lone voices who have called for climate action for decades.

    Today, the climate movement has momentum. We also have frameworks, including the Paris climate agreement and the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, which comprises the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). And we have convening moments, like the Conference of the Parties (COP) under the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change. We must use these mechanisms to hold government leaders, businesses, and industry accountable. More broadly, we must view the COVID-19 pandemic as an opportunity to build a system that rewards social responsibility, does not tolerate short-sightedness or greed, accepts science, recognizes nature’s limits, and leaves no one behind.

  43. Professor for climate physics Reto Knutti tweeted:

    “New UN #EmissionsGap Report shows that 5yrs after Paris we are *FAR* away from a pathway to 1.5°C.

    Current emissions: 52 GtCO2
    Current policies for 2030: 59
    Pledged: 53-56
    Required in 2030 for 1.5°C: 25 Gt CO2.

    We are on heading for 3°C, not 1.5°C.”

  44. Charles Hall in a doorstop:

    “Energy… Economics is very peculiar… next thirty or forty years… a lot of it is bs… any real scientist looks at what an economist does and it’s a joke. I wouldn’t let my freshmen get away with this..”

    https://damnthematrix.wordpress.com/2017/04/21/charlie-hall-on-eroei-2/

    A brief tangential reference to the pv industry buying off various corrupted scientific journals. Towards the end he lists various ERoIEXT requirements for some of the taken for granted aspects of current family life in the ‘developed’ world. He gets to about an ERoIEXT of 17 for the basics. Thermodynamics has not changed since this interview, not since the Big Bang… and can’t be expected to change any time soon. Renewables with ERoIEXT of ~3? Ha, forget it, until maybe after a huge human population crash.

    Isn’t that Gail Tverberg in maroon jacket standing in the background behind Prof Hall?

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