“Low Hanging Fruit” vs. “Deep Green”

The Governor’s task force on climate change is meeting in Blacksburg today. One of the voices that will not be heard is that of Patrick Michaels, former state climatologist and one of the nation’s leading Global Warming skeptics. Despite his extensive knowledge on climate change issues, Michaels was conspicuously not asked to serve on the commission. That’s no surprise, of course, given the fact that the commission was predicated on the key assumption, which Michaels questions, that human-caused increases in carbon dioxide will cause calamitously higher temperatures and sea levels. Under the circumstances, inviting Michaels to participate arguably would not lead to a productive exchange of ideas.

To my knowledge, Michaels has never commented on Virginia’s climate change task force… until now. In a post on the World Climate Report blog either Michaels or one of his co-bloggers takes on the subject of “The Virginia Climate Change Commission and the Mirage of Low Hanging Fruit.” (Authorship of the blog post is not attributed to any one of the blog’s three contributing editors, so it’s not clear who wrote the post. But if the author wasn’t Michaels, it seems likely that he shares the author’s views.)

Rather than revisit the familiar global-warming controversies, the author focuses on the commission’s stated goal of cutting greenhouse gas emissions by 30 percent by the year 2025 in order to restore emissions to 2000 levels. The goal, contends the author, who apparently has attended one or more of the commission hearings, will be harder than it looks.

The Commission [is] seeking potential ways to meet this goal through conservation, energy efficiency improvements, encouragement of renewable energies, etc. Oftentimes the discussion turned to identifying the “low hanging fruit” that was available to achieve the agreed upon goal — that is finding the easiest and most straightforward way of attempting to reduce emissions.

But there is no low-hanging fruit, the author contends. Obvious changes are already spoken for. Recommending changes that business and government are likely to make even in the absence of any action by the commission will amount to double counting and won’t get Virginia any closer to the commission’s goals. The argument is a bit arcane but worthy of consideration. Here’s the logic:

Virginia’s gross state product has been growing over the last 10 years at an average rate of about 3.5 percent yearly (2000 constant dollars). Virginia’s energy usage as well as its CO2 emissions have grown at a slower rate: slightly more than two percent yearly. In other words, Virginia’s economy is getting more energy efficient per unit of economic output.

Forecasts of Virginia’s economic output, energy consumption and CO2 emissions through 2025 take that improving energy efficiency into account. According to the “Greenhouse Gas Reduction Goal Update,” the Kaine administration is already assuming “continuing improvement in energy efficiency/energy intensity” for its “Business As Usual” energy scenario.

“Virginians have found ways to produce more per unit energy usage year-over-year through innovation and hard work,” writes the World Climate Report author. Motivated by higher energy prices, Virginians are projected to increase energy efficiency by 25 percent without any action on the part of the commission. The commission needs to find an extra 30 percent in CO2 reduction.

Writes the author:

What all of this means, is that the Commission cannot suggest things that would otherwise occur in their absence — for as we have seen, these things are implicit in the business-as-usual extrapolations. Thus, the Commission cannot recommend actions that are somewhat obvious (i.e. the low hanging fruit) and that are ongoing or will occur on their own in response to higher fuel costs, introduction of new technologies, price saving measures, etc.

Such actions include a constant push towards improving manufacturing efficiencies, the trend towards cars with higher gas mileage, the gradual switchover to compact florescent light bulbs, and any other initiatives that are already on the books or would otherwise be thought up. … Again, business-as-usual implies innovation.

Bacon’s bottom line

: I concur with this appraisal. Now, to follow the World Climate Report author’s logic to its logical conclusion: Achieving the Commission’s goals will require Fundamental Change to Virginia’s institutions. In other words, we need to go “deep green.”

“Green Lite” — relatively easy-to-implement conservation measures from CFL light bulbs to building-automation systems, from higher gas-mileage vehicles to more efficient industrial processes — is already happening. Implementation of these solutions will be driven by the soaring price of gasoline, coal, natural gas and electricity. Households and businesses are amply motivated to seek them out.

But there’s a deeper level of energy conservation that’s not so easily achieved because it entails changes not just to individual or corporate behavior but changes to intractably energy-intensive transportation systems and human settlement patterns. Reaching the Kaine administration’s goal of cutting CO2 by 30 percent (on top of the Business-As-Usual reduction of 25 percent) will require more than increasing the average fuel efficiency of Virginia’s automobile fleet by three or four miles per gallon. It will require cutting vehicle miles driven by 20 percent (or some enormous percentage). Likewise, reaching the goal will require more than installing more efficient HVAC systems and stuffing insulation in the cracks of single family dwellings. It may require a 20 percent reduction in the cubic footage of residential, retail, office or industrial space to be heated and cooled.

While necessary for a prosperous and sustainable society, embracing “deep green” and achieving Fundamental Change will be neither easy nor popular.

Today is the Climate Change commission’s last day for the presentation of facts and ideas by experts. It will be interesting to see if any of the materials posted online include any discussion of the need for changes that go beyond “Business As Usual” scenarios.

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  1. david santos Avatar
    david santos

    I loved this post and this blog.
    Happy day

  2. Anonymous Avatar

    If the Tysons Land Use Task Force has its way, every one in Virginia, except for the Governor’s staff, the faculty at UVA and VT, and a couple hundred sailors at Norfolk can live at Tysons Corner right across the street from the “Virginia Office Building.” The rest of the state can revert to its natural condition before Europeans and Africans arrived.


  3. Groveton Avatar


    I am glad to read your new found endorsement of Rail To Dulles.

    On a more serious note, I am in Amsterdam again today and continue to be amazed at the amoint of mass transit and pedestrian / bicycle traffic. You would never know that this city has a population density of over 11,500 per square mile. It seems like a city but not a set of concrete canyons. Very interesting to see how the streets, houses, roads and pedestrian / bicycle lanes are organized. I will have to look up their energy use per capita by (purely from observation) this seems like a pretty efficient city.

  4. “‘Green Lite’ — relatively easy-to-implement conservation measures from CFL light bulbs”

    Is pushing mercury-filled light bulbs really a good idea? I point this out only because the hasty rush to “solutions” to fad science problems usually makes things worse. E.g., think about the stuff added to gasoline to make it more environmentally friendly:

    MTBE — oops, that’s polluting our groundwater and causing cancer.

    Ethanol — oops, that’s contributing to starvation in Africa.

    Efficiency in manufacturing and automobile engines is, of course, great. But trying to bludgeon people into worrying about CO2, which is not a pollutant, instead of focusing on real pollutants like (NOx, etc.) is counterproductive for the environment in the long run.

  5. Anonymous Avatar

    energy usage… I take this to mean the energy kwph use consumed by businesses/residents via power meters ? carma.org shows a disproportionate number of carbon producing (coal) power plants in WV that produce power for export (VA)? My point being that the 2% co2 emissions number may not be representative of the actual amount of co2 being produced @ facilities that we (virginians) consume electricity from.

  6. E M Risse Avatar
    E M Risse

    Jim Bacon:

    One of your best posts on the energy / climate change issue. Hit the nail on the head re the need to be serious about energy conservation, not just for CO2 but for the economy as well.

    And Groveton:

    Good comments. Look forward to your Amsterdam analysis.

    Here is a number that blew me away and blows away the “they are doing the same things we are” tripe of the Euro Sprawl true believers.

    Netherlands percentage of trips by bike in 1995 (yes 1995) 6%

    Netherlands percentage of trips by bike in 2005 (yes just ten years later) 27%.

    And the Tiger Riders say that citizens cannot change in a democracy …

    While the percapita energy consumption did not go up after 1973 it was the mid-80 to the mid 90s before the efforts of the EU and others convinced the majority that, yes they did have to make Fundamental Changes…

    And they have.


  7. Anonymous Avatar

    “that human-caused increases in carbon dioxide will cause calamitously higher temperatures and sea levels.”

    This is the wrong issue.

    The issue is whether decreasing human caused increases in CO2 is the least expensive way to prevent calamity.

    Or even the best way.


  8. Anonymous Avatar

    “I will have to look up their energy use per capita by (purely from observation) “

    I don’t think observation will do it. You need to include all the energy inputs of everything that is transported to the city, and back out.

    Then it may not look so hot.


  9. Anonymous Avatar

    “But there’s a deeper level of energy conservation that’s not so easily achieved because it entails changes not just to individual or corporate behavior but changes to intractably energy-intensive transportation systems and human settlement patterns.”

    Leave off the last four words and read that sentence again.

    Then, what it says is that you will NOT BE ABLE TO GET WHAT YOU NEED.


  10. Anonymous Avatar

    “….embracing “deep green” and achieving Fundamental Change will be neither easy nor popular.”



  11. Anonymous Avatar

    “It will require cutting vehicle miles driven by 20 percent (or some enormous percentage). “

    In the last three weeks, my tractor sucked down more fuel than my car burns all year.

    If I cut my tractor VMT by 20% I reduce my production by 20%.

    Fortunately, I’m not the one growing your food.


    But with corn at $8.00 a bushel and climbing, I may change my mind.
    (Currently, I estimate it costs $4.50 a bushel to produce corn, not counting the costs of the land.)

    It is almost enough to assume the enormous risks involved.

    I don’t think the result of cutting tractor VMT by 20% is going to be very popular.


  12. Anonymous Avatar

    Bob is pretty close.

    You burn one C using two O’s and you get one CO2 and one quantum of energy.

    That equation isn’t going to change.

    Suppose you harness up a bunch of hoses to an enoormous treadmill to generate energy equal to a common 800meg coal powered plant.

    The horses eat grass, and that is renewable.

    No problem, right?

    Wrong. The net result is MORE CO2.

    And, the horses will take an enormous amount of land out of production.

    So, after you reduce tractor VMT by 20%, living space by 20% and energy use by 20%,

    Then, what do you do about growth?


  13. Larry Gross Avatar
    Larry Gross

    Gee Ray… didn’t you just describe most of Asia .. which is the fastest growing region in the world?

    are you not.. once again.. equating growth with consumption rather than efficiency?

  14. Anonymous Avatar

    I wasn’t talking about consumption or eficiency.

    I was talking about capacity.

    The argument seems to be that we face catastrophe. If we cut everything by 20% we can avert catastrophe. Then we grow 20%.

    Then what?

    Sooner or later you are talking about killing people, letting them die, or not allowing them to be born. We can already see evidence of all three.

    Once you face that,and have a solution, then you can see that conservation isn’t necessary if you just eliminate enough people.

    Might as well cut to the chase.

    EMR says we need fewer people concuming fewer resources, but he just never completed the thought. It is too unthinkable.


    Isn’t the growth in Asia affecting our energy costs? Won’t it affect any efforts we make to control CO2?


  15. Larry Gross Avatar
    Larry Gross

    Isn’t capacity affected by efficiency?

    If you find a way to half the use of energy – would it not follow that you would then gain capacity?

  16. Anonymous Avatar

    Not if you think capacity is limited by CO2 production. You only get to make so much electricity, or so much power, or support so many animals. You can change the mix of how you use it, but the resource you are using is not electricity, but the ability to use or store CO2.

    So, you use half the energy, or one quarter, or one eighth. Sooner or later, the answer is the same. Then the question is if it is so much later we don’t care. But if we are not saving for the future, then what are we saving for?

    Or is our quality of life so diminished we don’t care anymore.


    Don’t confuse conservation with efficiency: they are not the same. If you get the same result with less input, that is efficiency. If you get less result with less input, that is deprivation.

    In the case of conservation, you eventually reach a limit: you can’t get something for nothing. Then, if you keep growing, you bump right back into the same old CO2 limits. No matter what we do in the US, global CO2 production will climb.

    In the case of deprivation, sooner or later, that will lead to deaths. Conservation just means you reach a state of deprivation sooner.

    Sounds backwards, doesn’t it?


  17. Larry Gross Avatar
    Larry Gross

    It depends on how you view the word CONSERVE.

    You can CONSERVE in any number of ways that does not mean deprivation.

    Using one paper towel instead of two is not deprivation if it still gets the same job done and you were engaging in overkill to start with.

    Replacing paper towels with a sponge is not deprivation unless you end up with a mess that a sponge cannot clean up.

    I can go on and on .. but if a sponge saves paper towels.. then you’re consuming less without deprivation.

    and – as usual – my basic caveat – you are not choosing between using ONLY paper towels or ONLY sponges.

    The answer might well be that using a sponge more often can get everything accomplished that you wanted by using LESS… which is how one defines efficiency..

    your basic premise is that you cannot accomplish more with less and methinks you are wrong…

    you can.. and it’s called efficiency and it is, in fact, it is within the realm of conservation.

    Conservation only means deprivation in the minds of those who see Conservation as a waste of not using resources.. i.e. consumption.

  18. Anonymous Avatar

    “Using one paper towel instead of two is not deprivation if it still gets the same job done “

    Agreed. If it still gets the same job done, then that is efficiency, and conservation.

    If two people do that instead of one, you are right back where you started, only worse.

    If you only have or only allow two towels, the third person will be deprived. Probably he is someone who cannot “afford” a towel.

    Sometimes you can accomplish more with less, but it almost never actually happens. It is almost always an illusion. I’ve mowed a certain field for years, using the same pattern. Suddenly one day I realized a different pattern would be more efficient. Same area of field, less time turning around.

    Each incremental gain, costs more than the last one, and gains less. Today’s airplanes are much more efficient thatn the wright flyer, but they will never fly for free, so there must be a limit to efficiency.

    How many times will the record for the hundred yard dash be broken? How many times will it be broken by a full second?

    How many times HAS it been broken by a full second?

    Your fundamental premise seems to be that efficiency is boundless and costless, and I don’t think so.

    If we follow our present trajectory, any way of thinking through this leads to eventual deprivation.

    EMR thinks we need fewer people – the ultimate deprivation.

    If you have enough fewer people, you no longer need conservation.

    So, the problem you have to solve is not one of how to achieve efficiency, but how to decide who gets deprived.

    Eventually the CO2 argument backs conservationists into a very ugly corner, unless it is wrong.


  19. Anonymous Avatar

    One more reason to keep some healthy level of skepticism over global warming claims. “Energy Guzzled by Al Gore’s Home in Past Year Could Power 232 U.S. Homes for a Month. Gore’s personal electricity consumption up 10%, despite ‘energy-efficient’ home renovations.”


    Just as with defense contractors lobbying for increased federal spending on their particular weapon or system (Ike’s caution on the Military-Industrial Complex), we need to ask questions of people and organizations that: 1) don’t try very hard to walk their talk; and/or 2) are seeking public funding or massive increases in regulations for their pet project or goals.


  20. Anonymous Avatar

    So his consumption is up 10%. If he is accomplishing 20% more stuff, is that still conservation? Or is it only conservation if you achieve the same with less?


  21. Anonymous Avatar

    “The harsh reality of this energy crisis is that solving it will require more conventional energy, much more alternative energy, and a much greater emphasis on conservation, of which efficiency is only one component.”

    Geoffry Styles

    So, what is the other component of conservation, besides efficiency? must be doing without, right?


  22. Larry Gross Avatar
    Larry Gross

    I’m going to use your hay example.

    Do you think that harvesting hay with modern equipment is more efficient than the older equipment?

    Are you aware of the metric that says how many lbs of food a farmer can produce today MORE than he could 50 years ago?

    I don’t think efficiency is boundless but I also do not believe that it stands still either and I do believe that using less does not mean deprivation in and of itself.

    A LED light uses less power than a CFC which uses less power than an incandescent.

    We are not “deprived” of light because our technology produces newer versions that use less power.

    we have the same amount of light – but use less power.

    cost drives efficiency….

    the guy who turns down his thermostat is not “deprived” if he has to put a sweater on.. no more than the guy who wants to run his furnace and has to close the front door is “deprived”.

    Deprived in a relative term.

    Someone in this country says that he is “deprived” because he cannot afford a heat-pump bill of $500 a month is not “deprived” at all compared to the guy in China who can only afford to heat one room of his home.

    If you don’t want a $500 bill.. try various strategies to lower than price so you can afford it.

    it’s not “deprivation” because you cannot afford a Mercedes nor Mercedes-like heating bills either.

  23. Anonymous Avatar

    “Are you aware of the metric that says how many lbs of food a farmer can produce today MORE than he could 50 years ago?”

    The farmer cannot produce any more than he could fifty years ago. The farmer can, with the muscle provided by power equipment, protection and growth provided by chemicals, and seed provided through selection and mutation.

    If you reduce the allowable energy equivalent of any of those forms of assistance, his production will be reduced accordingly, and he will be deprived of those earnings. There is an almost direct realtionship between how far I drive my tractor, and what I harvest.

    It is as simple as that. Now, there are new tractor tires, which slip less and they are more efficient. When my present tires wear out in 20 years, I’ll get the new ones. But those tires are not going to prevent global warming: it is down in the noise.

    Cost does not drive efficiency. On my farm I wll use about 0.1 gallons of fuel per bale produced. If diesel is $4 per gallon or $4.40 per gallon I still use the same amount of fuel per bale. There is very little I can do about it.

    What cost drives is profitability. Some other farm where it is flat and the fields are bigger may be able to use only 0.5 gallons per bale, and he will still be in business when I am not. In that sense the more profitable operator is also more efficient, but that is an accident of geography, not a willful change in operations.

    But the end result is the same. After all the efficiencies are wrung out, someone will be deprived. In this case it would be me and my customers, unless they can buy hay from farther away, and still come out ahead, which seems unlikely.


    Your LED example shows that we can still have light at less power. It doesn’t show we can have light at less cost. If it costs more, then we are deprived. If it costs less, then we have gained some efficiency.

    But,as you say, efficiency is not boundless, and neither is the planets ability to absorb CO2. something will (eventually) have to give.

    Embracing deep green will be neither easy nor popular, precisesly because some people will have to do without or do withless – be deprived, in other words.

    Deprivation is a relative term. But when we set the limit on CO2 levels, we will also decide how much deprivation there will be. We had better be comfortable with that. If we can only tolerate so much CO2, then someone, somewhere is going to eventually do without power.

    Sure, turn down the heat and put on a sweater: let them eat cake. That guy with the $500 heat pump bill will still be around when the guy in China is out of business, and can’t heat any rooms. Why? beause he is more efficient at generating cash (profits). That he can use to keep warm.

    He won’t voluntarily give that up to the chinaman or the guy in Farmville. You are going to have to deprive him.


    I’d like to make the same hay with less power, but practically speaking, it isn’t going to happen. Diesel engines are as efficient as they are. I climb the same hills every year. Hay is tough, nasty stuff, when I get into thick grass you can hear that 80 HP engine labor, trying to slice through it. A forty HP engine would just stop. Whether it turnso out to be less HP or less use of the HP I have, the end result is still deprivation.

    And, when it gets all done, energy is not the biggest of my problems, and it has to get in line behind other efficiencies I need to work on. Ones with higher payoffs.


  24. Larry Gross Avatar
    Larry Gross

    In a competitive marketplace – the way you get more profits is by selling more for less and the way you do that is by implementing efficiencies that allow you to produce more for less.

    Only in a monopolistic scenarios can you increase your profits by increasing your prices.

    Finding efficiencies is how you gain productivity.

    The GDP does not advance because we are consuming more resources.

    It is the opposite – we are producing more with less.

  25. Anonymous Avatar

    “It is the opposite – we are producing more with less.”

    Swell, then the more we produce the less resources we use: we can stop worrying.

    It still sounds to me as if you are saying we can keep breaking the record for the hundred meter dash forever.

    The whole point of this post is to pont out that the low hanging fruit has already been picked: We broke the 15 second record for the hundred yard dash. Breaking the 8 second record is going to be tough.

    We made huge gains in farming from 1940 to 1990, but those gains are not likely to be repeated. Even now, some of those “efficiencies” are coming back to haunt us.

    You think that the GDP does not advance because we are consuming more resources. I think that dollars directly translate to resources, in the final analysis.

    Infinite growth without resources means getting something for nothing, which cannot happen. therefore, growth must be finite, which is the entire argument of the conservation movement in a nutshell.

    When growth stops and population doesn’t, then deprivation is inevitable. I suggest we are all going to be deprived of seeing the efficiencies that lead to a 7 second hundred meter dash.


  26. Larry Gross Avatar
    Larry Gross

    We are no where near the limits in many areas…

    there are new patents, new breakthroughs ..ongoing.. and some are game-changers….

    10 years ago no one thought there was such a thing as a plug-in electric hybrid…

    we “knew” that it was pretty much impossible for a computer to seamlessly switch between an electric and a gasoline motor…

    efficiencies are how you do more with less… it’s how you beat your competition and make bigger profits…

    those that think the only way to make more profits is to consume more resources lose out to the competitors that do more with less.

  27. Anonymous Avatar

    “10 years ago no one thought there was such a thing as a plug-in electric hybrid… “

    Popular mechanics published plans for one back in the 1970’s, with pictures of one in action. It used a 32 volt nose wheel motor from an aircaft, and the regular falcon engine as a motive source. It had regenerative braking, same as my Prius.

    I would have built one then, but I didn’t have the money and cheap fuel made it impractical.

    Electric cars existed long before that.

    This is not a breakthrough, but a shift in the cost/benefit curves.


  28. Anonymous Avatar

    If you are able to do more with less, you flatten the slope of the curve.

    But you still use more resources. Just less than you might have.

    You could produce the same amount for less, but then GDP would not increase. Using less resources per unit allows you to lower the price and sell more units, so you can make more money (add to the GDP). Otherwise, there is no incentive to “use less”.

    Even you can see that increasing the GDP this way means you use more resources.

    I agree, there are areas where we can make great advances. But, net net, one of two things happens, eventually: a) you use up all the resources (one of them being the environment) or b) you cut back on production (conserve, as some people call it).

    Either way, the eventual result is that someone does without. The only question is how far away is eventual and how much do we do without. In other words, what is the discount rate, and what is conservation “worth” in todays dollars.

    Sooner or later, conservationists will have to face the ethical problems they are creating today. Do we drill in ANWR or do we let people “suffer” while they are filling up their SUV’s? Sure, We can trivialize the suffering argument as I have just done, but try trivializing it to someone who hasn’t enough to eat, and has no economic hope of getting it.


    35 years ago, a hybrid “wasn’t worth it” to me, and today it is. (I think, some people still dispute that.) Part of the reason is that Toyota worked very hard to create the efficiencies you talk about. Toyota did that so they could sell a lot more cars than otherwise, and in the end, use more resources, not less.


    If we are really no where near the limits in many areas, what are we worrying about?


  29. Larry Gross Avatar
    Larry Gross

    well I’m not worrying.

    I’m basically optimistic.

    Try to visualize how the world has changed in so many ways… some of them huge efficiencies … since cellphones became practical.

    How much time…how many trips, how many dollars have been saved by being able to communicate the right information at the right time to the right person?

    could you ever have conceived ahead of time all the myriad ways that the cell phone would affect virtually every aspect of life – as we know it.

    GPS units.. on your tractor.. saving you time and money….

    you’re doing more with less Ray

    GPS units… you put in 20 destinations and it re-orders them in the most optimal order – a practical use of the traveling salesman problem…

    on and on and on… change is going on all around you.. change that allows more to be done with less…

    I can have something I “see” on my computer screen siting in my lap in a matter of hours merely by clicking “buy now”.

    How long and how much more expensive when that had cost 20 years ago?

    How many non-customers did a business in Doodlebug, Ala not have from folks in Colorado who never knew you could buy doodlebugs by the gross?

    how can you not see it?

  30. Anonymous Avatar

    Because everyone of those examples results in MORE total resources being used, not less.


  31. Larry Gross Avatar
    Larry Gross

    if that is the case – then what exactly is the benefit to you in paying extra money for the GPS on your tractor?

    Usually when someone does this – they are trying to reduce their consumption of fertilizer (which costs money) but still produce the same amount – usually more profit.


    if not..then why waste your money on something that actually results in less profit?

  32. Anonymous Avatar

    Previously, one of three things happened.

    I couldn’t afford fertilizer, and didn’t buy it. I had no costs and no benefits.

    I bought fertilizer and got too much or too little. Too much was a waste of money and an environmental hazard. I got no benefit from some of the (expensive) fertilizer and this lowered my profit.

    Too little and I didn’t get enough boost, and this lowered my profit because I didn’t get product I might have. It costs pretty much the same to harvest an acre whehter I get one ton of hay or two.

    So there is only one point at which I get the maximum benefit for the least cost, and that is when I spend the right amount at each location. (I don’t hold it against a location because it has high locational costs. I spend what it takes to get the best return on that location for the minimum cost.)

    Since I couldn’t afford to buy fertilizer and waste it, I usually bought less than I needed.

    Yes, the GPS puts more in the right plaes and less in the wrong places, which is a savings. But, overall I can use more because I get the right amount everywhere.

    If this gives me more profit, what happens to the money? I spend it on MORE stuff and it increases consumption of goods, generally.


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