Daniel Johnson: Nigel, your book, An Appeal to Reason, has set off a very important and timely debate about the basis — both economic and scientific — for the consensus that has emerged on global warming. Were you surprised by the response to your book?
Nigel Lawson: The first thing that surprised me was the extreme difficulty in getting the book published. I had probably the number one agent in this country, and I’d published a number of books before, but he had the greatest difficulty finding a publisher at all. In fact he couldn’t find a British publisher and eventually had to go to an American publisher who has a subsidiary in London.
So that was the first surprise. After that, yes, I was pleasantly surprised by how much interest it has created, how well it is selling, how many people are reading it, and the huge number of supportive letters from all sorts of people — including very many scientists.
DJ: Oliver, are you surprised that Nigel’s book seems to have touched a nerve? Do you think that the debate on this subject in this country had become too one-sided, with the whole sceptical side of the argument being more or less excluded?
Oliver Letwin: Well, I think Nigel’s book — because it’s a good read, it’s well written, and because it’s very calm — is bound to be taken more seriously than if it were a diatribe. As we’ll discover as we proceed with the conversation, I don’t agree with many of the propositions in the book, but it’s good that there’s a book here which is serious and well considered; one that we can discuss and debate.
DJ: That hasn’t always been the position of at least some scientists and also some economists, who tend to say, “The debate is over”. So are you saying that, from a Conservative point of view, you welcome a debate on this, that you don’t regard the issue as closed?
OL: Well, I don’t think any debate is ever closed. A future Conservative government should take sensible actions, even if there is a debate going on. But at the same time as taking action, I think it always makes sense to go on debating issues, discussing them, trying to work out whether the arguments are valid or invalid.
NL: I think it’s very important to look at this issue rationally. And it has become — I’m sure not for Oliver but for far too many people — almost a new religion, and any dissenting voice is called a denier and accused of sacrilege. And this is damaging not merely the search after reason but also the environmental cause, because nowadays it is very difficult to get a grant for anything unless it’s connected with global warming. Somebody I came across who wanted to do a study of the problems of land contaminated with toxic waste was told that unless he could link it to global warming, he couldn’t get the funding.
Also the measures we are told are necessary to deal with this will do huge damage to the economy, in my judgement. But they will also have very little effect because, to the extent that this is a valid problem, it is a global problem, and you need to get all the other major countries of the world included in a global agreement — including, of course, China and India. And there is no way that they are going to hold back on their economic growth, hold back on the emergence of as many as possible of their people from poverty, malnutrition, disease and premature death, by cutting back on their carbon dioxide emissions — cutting back on what is the cheapest form of energy by far. Despite the big increase in the price, oil, coal and gas are still far and away the cheapest source of energy. And they’re not going to do this.
What worries me, incidentally, is that because they are not going to do this you hear more and more voices, in the EU and even in the United States, particularly on the Democrat side, suggesting that trade sanctions should be imposed on those countries that are not prepared to sign up to cutting back on their carbon dioxide emissions in a mandatory way. The danger is of a rolling-back of globalisation and a re-emergence of protectionism that will do far more harm than global warming.
I do say how we should deal with it if the science is right. But the science is very uncertain, and people who say that it is certain are either ignorant or liars. But man has always adapted to changes in the climate. And that is perfectly practical, especially when in many parts of the world a few degrees warmer is actually an improvement. In other parts it’s not, of course, but you can pick up the benefits in those parts that benefit, and you adapt to minimise the losses in those other countries. If there are problems in some of the poorer countries, we must help them adapt through our overseas aid programmes. That is far cheaper than severely damaging our economies by moving to much higher-cost energy.
There is a big hoo-ha now about high energy costs. The Government’s policy on global warming — and I regret to say it’s a policy supported by the official Opposition — only makes sense if energy prices are far higher than they are today. So it is a bit illogical to complain about the high price of energy now, when in fact their whole policy on so-called climate change is to push up the price of energy.
OL: The only thing Nigel said that I agree with is that it’s absurd to suppose that everything should be linked to climate change, or that nothing should be said about biodiversity or contamination. Clearly all those things matter enormously, as does the beauty of our natural environment.
Let me start with Nigel’s proposition that it is hugely expensive to address this problem by mitigation rather than adaptation, which in a way is the central thesis of the book. There are reasons for aiming towards a low-carbon economy which have to do with carbon, but there are also reasons which have to do with energy prices and energy security. I think they all point in the same direction.
Let’s take energy security. Leaving aside coal for the moment, we have a diminishing domestic supply of other carbon fuels, and the preponderance of what we will be importing over the coming years comes from Russia, from the Maghreb and from the Middle East. It’s impossible to identify three areas of the world about which one ought to have more concern in the medium term than those three. To liberate ourselves as much as possible from dependence on those three sources of energy is a policy which would be worth considering on its own terms even if there were no questions about carbon at all.
We turn next to the question of price and price volatility and its effects. Now I’m conscious of speaking to a distinguished former Chancellor, but the fact is that if we are on a trend towards higher fossil fuel prices, then we can anticipate that there are likely to be quite sharp price volatilities. That seems to argue in favour of reducing our dependence on fossil fuels.
Nigel’s argument rests on the assertion that it will be enormously expensive to mitigate. And I don’t think that assertion is valid. It doesn’t take a very great change in fossil fuel prices to alter the balance between, for example, gas-fired power stations and nuclear plants. It’s not at all clear that moving to an increased dependence on carbon capture coal-fired plants will be economically disadvantageous. By opening up the potential for indigenous coal supply to be used, and attaching to it carbon capture, we may end up with a form of electricity supply which is dependable, cheap and secure. If we turn to transport, the evidence suggests that well judged, not drastic but gradual, incentives to persuade manufacturers to produce more efficient cars are perfectly possible without vast increases in the capital costs of cars.
Finally we move to heating, which is the third major component of our energy sector. There is abundant evidence that a serious approach to energy efficiency, and serious incentives and information, can yield significant economic benefit. Ironically, it was Nigel when he was Energy Secretary who began the work of energy efficiency, and the UK has done well in increasing this. So is there this terrifying prospect of a vast expenditure which might be wasted? Our view should be that there isn’t. There would be a fairly modest cost.
NL: I have seldom heard such a farrago of wishful thinking and muddle.
OL (laughing): I detect that Nigel doesn’t agree with me!
NL: I don’t know where to start, the wishful thinking or the muddle. Perhaps some of the muddle can be disposed of first. I’m so glad to hear Oliver expressing a view which the Conservative party — because of the influence, I suspect, of Zac Goldsmith — has been a bit quiet about lately. It has been hostile to nuclear power, which is very foolish. This, coupled with the hostility to coal, means we have a serious problem, with demand for electricity, at anything like the present price, far outstripping the capacity to generate it. We have a real crisis, and we’re not the only ones; other European countries do too.
So that’s an energy security problem; but we have ample supplies of coal. Not merely do we have it, but many other countries do too, and coal, unlike oil and gas, tends to be located in parts of the world where you don’t need to have any great worries. So there isn’t really an energy security problem provided that we’re prepared to use coal, and we should be prepared to do so if it’s economic. But even with the imported gas from Russia or wherever, all you need to do is have adequate gas storage. The Russians need the money so badly that they are going to have to sell the gas. They’re not going to stop selling it, except for a short period, in order to exercise geopolitical leverage. So all we need to do is add adequate storage to cover ourselves over that period. It’s a relatively simple and cheap and obvious thing to do. And as for oil, there’s so much oil in the world. When I was Energy Secretary, people were talking about peak oil then, and there’s no such thing, it’s nonsense — the price may have to go up a bit, that’s all.
That brings us to the wishful thinking. The idea that we can move away from a carbon economy — and this doesn’t mean silly little things like turning your television off standby or having a hybrid car — it means that, under the Government’s climate change proposals, there will be between 60 and 80 per cent decarbonisation of the economy. It is a massive transformation, and the idea that this won’t cost much is for the birds. If it were the case, then the Government and the Conservative Party could relax; they wouldn’t need any policy about it because it would take place automatically. But that’s not going to happen.
Just look at the oil price. It has gone up enormously, and people are still using it in preference to alternative energy sources because it is so much cheaper. We are still using gas to fuel power stations because it is so much cheaper. And carbon dioxide emissions, as a result, have been going up inexorably, because this is far and away the cheapest source of energy, and to go for any other source, even nuclear, will be substantially more expensive.
Wind power, which seems to be the Government’s favourite, is particularly uneconomic. Huge subsidies are being paid, even now, for the tiny proportion of our energy sources that we get from wind power. With a significantly wind-powered system, because the wind stops blowing from time to time, electricity has to be always on tap, you have to have conventional power stations on standby. Not only does this mean that the reduction in carbon dioxide emissions anyhow is greatly diminished — because the standby stations tend to be the cheapest and therefore the greatest emitters — but it hugely increases the cost, having this extra system on standby, that has to be ready to be activated at a moment’s notice. So forget about wind power; it is not going to be economic for the foreseeable future.
Now even the International Energy Agency agrees that because of this we are going to have to rely overwhelmingly on carbon-based energy. So the technology of choice is to capture the carbon dioxide emissions from the electricity generated in carbon-fired power stations. It is a wonderful idea, and there is only one snag: the technology doesn’t exist, and it may never exist. Only a year ago, when he was energy minister, the present Chancellor, Alistair Darling, told the House of Commons that the technology might never exist to do this commercially. At the moment it is totally uneconomic. A lot of companies have cancelled their research into this, because they think it has so little future. So this is largely pie in the sky. I remember when I was Energy Secretary, which was more than 25 years ago, the coming thing was nuclear fusion: “We’re going to move on from nuclear fission and have nuclear fusion”. But it hasn’t happened; indeed, we’re now told that it’s still about 25 years off. So you can’t just assume that you’re going to get the technologies you would like to get.
But the important thing to remember is that there isn’t really anything like the problem that is popularly supposed. Certainly not if you believe the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change [IPCC], and by that I don’t mean the directorate of this organisation, who are just alarmists, but the actual scientists. Even though they greatly underestimate — deliberately, I think — the benefits that can come from adaptation, they predict that the adverse impacts of climate change are not going to be all that great; that future generations, particularly in the developing world, are going to be far better off than they are today. The great disaster from which we have to save the planet is that the people of the developing world in 100 years time, instead of being nine and a half times as well off as they are today, will be only eight and a half times as well off. Of course, there may not be this growth, but if there isn’t this economic growth, then there won’t be the growth in the emissions, and so - according to the models they use - there won’t be the predicted global warming. But even on their assumptions it will not be a disaster, whereas the damage that will be done by trying to cut back on emissions is very great.
Oliver says that Stern doesn’t take that view. Stern is alone — I have not come across a single competent environmental or energy economist who remotely agrees with Stern. If you look at William Nordhaus at Yale, the father of environmental economics, he accepts that the cost will be huge. And the same for every other serious economist who’s looked at it — from Dieter Helm at Oxford, Richard Tol at Hamburg and Dublin, to Martin Weitzman at Harvard, to Sir Partha Dasgupta at Cambridge — they all accept it is likely to be hugely expensive. If you look at the reasoning in the Stern report, it is just laughable. It was a political propaganda document; he was a civil servant at the time and he had to support what was the Government’s policy.
OL: I’m afraid there’s much that I disagree with there. Let’s start with carbon capture. It is true that there is no scaled-up commercial example of carbon capture at present; it is a nascent technology. However, each of the elements of carbon capture and storage have been proved to date. But it hasn’t been done even on the scale of a very modest power plant of 50 megawatts, let alone 500 megawatt or 1,000 megawatt behemoths. But it’s not the case that all the scientists working on this believe that it will take decades. There are reasonable grounds for optimism that it will prove, by about 10 years from now, to be a scaleable technique.
NL: And if it doesn’t?
OL: I don’t know whether carbon capture and storage will prove to be a relatively cheap and effective technology, but there’s a perfectly good chance that it will. Now I accept that it will cost more to build a coal plant with carbon capture and storage than without — say 10 per cent more. But if one looks at the range of likely increases in cost, it’s likely to be fairly modest in comparison with the volatility of prices of imported gas and oil, which is very considerable — up to 250 per cent. Having spent many years financing power plants, I’m very aware that those volatilities get built into the cost of capital for the plants when constructing, and lead to much greater increases than 10 per cent in the effective capital cost.
The other side of my argument is that energy efficiency tends not only to cost less but ultimately saves money. I accept Nigel’s argument that if energy efficiency is a cost advantage to firms, then in a free market firms will invest in it anyway. But I don’t accept the proposition that governments can’t affect the speed with which such changes occur. A government can affect that.
DJ: Would a Conservative Government try to do that?
OL: Yes. I think it makes sense for government to try to ensure, for example, that people are aware that loft insulation would save money. Many houses don’t have it. Why? Because there is an imperfection in the market, and that’s the sort of thing that governments can cure. And by doing so, nothing but good arises.
NL: This is trivial. You’re not going to get the 80 per cent decarbonisation of the economy from loft insulation. People will no doubt insulate their lofts if the oil price goes on rising, but so far the extent of dependence on carbon-based energy has not diminished one whit, because it is still far cheaper, despite the volatility. The volatility is not new; you guard against it commercially by a mixture of long-term contracts and hedging. The biggest weakness, however, was that Oliver said increased energy efficiency is going to save the day — on the contrary. What happens is that if you find a way of getting more miles to the gallon from your car because of increased efficiency, you’ll just drive more miles.
OL: Nigel is asserting that the inevitable and only response is that people will use their cars more. Now, this is not the inevitable response, it is a possible response — in a market place in which the Government made no intervention whatsoever. But the fact is that this is not a market in which the Government doesn’t intervene. The Government intervenes a great deal: in taxing petrol, in taxing cars, in road-building programmes, in congestion charging and in many other ways.
NL: So you want to tax petrol more, do you?
OL: No; what I’m saying is that there are all sorts of ways in which government can intervene to try to make sure that, if cars become more efficient, the consequence is that people bear a lower cost of petrol, rather than that they use their cars more.I don’t think there are terrifying costs associated with a gradual movement towards a lower carbon economy over 40 or 50 years.
NL: Well, I’m glad to see Oliver now saying we only have to do something gradually over 40 or 50 years. This is not what the alarmists are saying; they say, “Unless we do something drastic in the next 10 years, it’s going to be too late.” But I’m not sure what Oliver is proposing to do. The fact is that non-carbon energy is hugely more expensive than carbon energy. And the only way you can get a shift is to make carbon energy considerably more expensive than it would otherwise be, so that non-carbon energy becomes economic.
I don’t know by how much Oliver wishes to see the cost of carbon-based energy increased, but of course this has a bearing on the question of how expensive it would be to decarbonise. But there is a simple way of finding out: you increase the tax on carbon-based energy a little bit and see what difference that makes to behaviour. If it doesn’t make a difference, you increase it a bit more. Perhaps Oliver can say how much he is prepared to increase the tax before he says enough is enough or, more likely, the electorate boots out whichever Government is doing it.
DJ: In the American election the cost of petrol has become a big issue because of the economic down-turn, and all the candidates are now promising cheaper petrol. This suggests that Nigel may have a point, that even in a country where people understand the issues, the moment they feel the pinch, their green credentials go out of the window and they start worrying about the cost of petrol.
OL: Well, of course Nigel has a point that there is political resistance to be anticipated to any tax. Even I, only having been shadow Chancellor, am conscious of that. But it’s a very different thing to propose to tax environmental “bads” if you’re going to do what Gordon Brown has typically done, which is to use the money as a form of stealth tax revenue, rather than what George Osborne is proposing, which is to tax environmental bads and simultaneously to reduce other taxes on families pro rata, pound for pound. In the second case, I don’t pretend that there are no political difficulties, but it seems to be a very different proposition. And I think there is scope, therefore, for judicious, progressive efforts to switch the burden away from direct taxation of families towards taxing environmental bads.
NL: By environmental “bads” you mean petrol and electricity generated by conventional power stations.
OL: Carbon. I’m trying desperately not to gazump the very careful judgements that George Osborne will have to make about exactly what form those taxes will take, but it’s perfectly possible to find ways of taxing carbon output and using that money to reduce other taxes. And that shift is, I think, one that we can sell successfully to the British public, not least because it will be very difficult for the Labour party, which happens to agree with us about these matters even though Nigel doesn’t, to attack us.
NL: I wouldn’t think it impossible that the Labour party, if it’s feeling desperate, might suddenly flip on this, and decide that it doesn’t believe in these high carbon taxes and leave the Tory party high and dry.
OL: I’m certainly not going to stake my life on the lack of cynicism of Gordon Brown; we can agree about that! But no, I think there is a realistic prospect of moving in that direction.
DJ: Let’s turn to the global question, bringing in Nigel’s point about the danger of putting globalisation into reverse and the dangers of protectionism.
OL: Yes, there is a point of agreement between us there. I am, as much as he is, a free-trader, and the party doesn’t sponsor any attempt to move back towards protectionism. But the question Nigel is raising is whether there is any realistic prospect of some form of international agreement which brings in the Americans, the Chinese, the Indians, the Brazilians, the Russians, the EU and the Japanese. And if you step back a few years, it looked as though there wasn’t any chance that the Americans would accede to such an agreement. But it isn’t just the Democrats who have changed; whichever president we have next is likely to be of a very different disposition from the Bush administration’s. So America is likely to shift. I don’t think that anybody knows what the attitude of the Chinese government to these matters will be in even two or three years from now. In India there is a lively discussion going on and there is a considerable will to participate in such an agreement if the Americans are on board.
NL: It’s the other way about. The Indians have made it clear that no way are they going to do it. The Chinese tend to speak with two voices, but the more senior voices say no way are they going to accept a limitation on their emissions — though they’re very happy to accept technological aid from the West. But on the acid test of whether you’re prepared to accept an international agreement binding you to a limit on your emissions, they on the whole said, “no way”. Now recently the Russians have said no way will they do it.
The majority view of the Americans has undergone a slight shift, but whereas the Americans have previously said, “no way are we going to do this” full stop, they’re now saying ,“no way are we going to do this unless the Chinese and the Indians and the Russians and everybody else does”. Since they’re not going to, it comes to much the same thing.
So it has to be a matter of developing technology to make it easier to adapt to whatever happens. The food production and price problem is leading to riots and increased starvation in many parts of the world, greatly exacerbated by this absurd global warming religion which has lead to subsidies being given — America and the EU are very guilty — to produce crops and use land for biofuels. Indeed, the former UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food, Jean Ziegler, has said this is wicked and has called for a moratorium for five years on the production of biofuels. It is wicked; that is the only word for it.
So you’ve got to approach this rationally, and see what is in the interest of the people of the world, particularly the people of the developing countries, but also the people of our own country. The science is very uncertain. It’s not that the existence of the greenhouse effect is uncertain, but there’s no agreement on how much warming is produced by increases in carbon dioxide; and there’s no agreement — or understanding, really — on most of the other factors that determine the world’s climate and temperature. Nobody predicted that, after the global warming that there undoubtedly was during the last quarter of the last century, there would so far this century be no further warming. The Hadley Centre, the branch of the Met Office which deals with climate change, has now said that they expect this lull, which they didn’t predict, and which they now try to explain as having happened because of natural forces counteracting the greenhouse effect, is likely to last until 2009 or thereabouts. My own sources within the Hadley Centre tell me privately that they don’t expect it to resume until about 2015, and studies have been published by other reputable scientists saying that it is not likely to resume until 2015. We ought to realise how great the uncertainties are in this whole area. But there is one great certainty, and that is that if we cut back drastically on our carbon dioxide emissions, this will be extremely costly — politically as well as economically.
It is instructive to look at the Kyoto Agreement, which runs out in 2012. Kyoto was very modest. It asked for only a 5 per cent reduction from the signatory countries in their carbon dioxide emissions. Even that is not going to be reached. We are one of the few signatories who may well reach it, because the Government of which I was a member privatised the gas industry. And because gas has half the carbon emissions of coal, that led to a big reduction. In fact, since the present Government came in, for all its rhetoric, carbon emissions have increased.
OL: Nigel can’t know whether there is going to be a successor to Kyoto.
NL: Well, look, there’ll be an international agreement in the sense that there will be platitudes. The acid test is: will there be an agreement to have binding cutbacks for all participants on their carbon emissions? Instead of arguing about it, we could have a wager on it.
OL: I’d be very happy to have a wager, and I offer you a £100 bet that before either of us is dead, whichever is the first — our estates can pay — we will see a very substantial agreement on carbon reduction.
NL: But I don’t think I want the bet to be “in my lifetime” because I’d like to get the £100. I’m sorry it’s such a modest amount you’re prepared to wager — it shows how unconfident you are — but I would like to be able to collect before I die. So I think we should say “by the time Kyoto runs out”, because there is meant to be no hiatus; there is meant to be a successor to Kyoto. So “by 2012 we will have the agreement” — maybe I’ll die before then, of course — but 2012 is the acid test.
OL: On the same basis, Nigel, I’m perfectly willing to take that bet too. The reason I’m willing to take the bet is that I know that the only way it can be made to happen is if we try to make it happen and if we build up the moral authority to make it happen by taking the steps ourselves.
NL: As for the moral authority, I have to say that Oliver reminds me very much of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament. You remember the call of CND was that “if we give up our nuclear weapons we shall have such moral authority that everybody else will do the same”. Most of us didn’t believe that was likely and I think were right not to, and therefore we didn’t support CND. But Oliver is now producing precisely the same argument with less plausibility, because we were a major nuclear power, but we are in fact a minuscule emitter. We are responsible in this country for slightly less than 2 per cent of total global emissions, and it’s declining. So our moral authority on this is negligible.
OL: First of all, it’s not only our moral authority, but the ricochet of ours through the EU, and the EU as a total is not a negligible part of this issue. Secondly, it isn’t the case that that the UK influence on these matters is restricted to 2 per cent.
Industries controlled in the UK are a major component of all the carbon emissions in the world. And I don’t accept that the language that Nigel is using here is right. He’s been persistently talking about a drastic reduction, whereas what I’m talking about is a very substantial reduction but over a very considerable period. That is not drastic. Secondly, Nigel slips into talking about reducing growth rates in China or India. Of course the Chinese and Indians are not going to sign up to reducing growth rates. But they may well sign up to changing the way they achieve those growth rates, so that it’s less carbon-producing. I don’t accept that it will be the case, as he was arguing, that if there is not a severe problem in developing countries, that will be because there hasn’t been great growth, and that if there hasn’t been great growth, then there won’t have been carbon emissions. These things may be very asymmetrical — sub-Saharan Africa has actually got poorer rather than richer over the past 50 years in absolute terms.
In 50 years from now people in sub-Saharan Africa may in fact be poorer than they are today.
NL: But you’re not going to help them by making them colder. There are other, better ways of helping them.
OL: And I suspect you and I would agree about many of those ways, but the truth is that we may also find that they are being very severely, adversely affected. The risks here are being significantly understated by your propositions. There are risks that the effect on water supply is exaggerated in parts of the world that are particularly poor. There are risks that quite small changes in temperature sustained over a considerable period affect not just statistics such as GDP growth but also movements of population and political stability. I’m not a maniac religionist about this; I am asserting that there are more risks than you are allowing for.
NL: I take the figures from the most recent reports of the IPCC, which if anything has an interest in exaggerating the risks. They have a range of scenarios, and on their least-warming scenario the average global temperature will go up from where it is now by 1.6° centigrade by the year 2100, and in the warmest scenario there’ll be an increase of about 3.8° from where we are now. And if you take the warmest one, they say they think that it’ll mean a loss of world GDP of between 1 and 5 per cent. So the upper prediction is 5 per cent of GDP. You want there to be, as I understand it, a legal requirement for there to be an 80 per cent reduction in UK carbon emissions by 2050?
OL: Yes. We’ve committed ourselves to what the Committee on Climate Change decides is the appropriate level of reduction. We have signed up previously to 60 per cent and I accept that they may come up with 80 per cent.
NL: So what happens when there is a mismatch between the modest, gradual increase in the cost of carbon-based energy, which you’re prepared to tolerate, and an 80 per cent decarbonisation of the economy, which means that everything except air travel is totally decarbonised? Are you going to abandon the legal requirement, or are you going to stick with it and say, “well, we’ve got to bite the bullet and we’ve got to accept a much higher cost”?
OL: I learnt long ago at the feet of people like Nigel, and indeed Mrs T, and my original mentor Keith Joseph, that the great changes are never achieved by speculating about what you will do if you fail. Had that been the attitude of the Conservatives in 1979, we would never have achieved the magnificent things that Nigel’s governments did achieve. You start by setting a path in the expectation that you will succeed, and you work out ways to succeed in your mission.
And success here means combining changes which are democratically acceptable, economically acceptable, and have the effects that we are seeking.
NL: The whole thing is pie in the sky and it’s about time that Oliver and his colleagues got real.
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