Could Microsoft’s Climate Crisis ‘Moonshot’ Plan Really Work?
By Oscar Schwartz
Microsoft drew widespread praise in January this year after Brad Smith, the company's president, announced their climate "moonshot."
While other corporate giants, such as Amazon and Walmart, were pledging to go carbon neutral, Microsoft vowed to go carbon negative by 2030, meaning they would be removing more carbon from the atmosphere than they produced.
By 2050, Smith added, the company was aiming to remove all of the carbon they had ever emitted since being founded in 1975.
Much of its plans lean on nascent technology. Critics, meanwhile, see the move as a gamble aimed at justifying Microsoft's ongoing deals with fossil fuel firms.
Microsoft releases less carbon a year than Amazon and Apple, but more than Google. The company has 150,000 employees across offices in more than 100 countries, and is still focused on developing the software and consumer electronics that made them a household name – Windows, PCs, Xbox. But after a temporary slump following their heyday in the 1990s, they have also once again become innovators, developing world-leading artificial intelligence (AI) and cloud computing products.
The company hopes to bring that innovative approach to its climate policies, in part by widening how it calculates its carbon footprint, beyond most corporate responsibility plans. Historically, Microsoft has only counted those emissions that fall within the scope of their own business operations – employee travel, company vehicles, heat and electricity in company buildings, and so on.
From now on, it plans to take responsibility for the emissions produced by its entire supply chain, including the full lifespan of the products it makes and the electricity that customers may consume when using its products.
Meanwhile, increasing the scrutiny on Microsoft's plan are its dealings with fossil fuel companies, which have been highlighted by some as evidence of hypocrisy as it makes climate pledges. In 2019 alone, the technology company had entered into long-term partnerships with three major oil companies, including ExxonMobil, that will be using Microsoft's technology to expand oil production by as much as 50,000 barrels a day over the coming years. The staggering amount of carbon this would release into the atmosphere would not be included on Microsoft's expanded carbon ledger.
For Microsoft, however, partnering with oil companies is not considered hypocritical. The company is hedging its climate bets on carbon capture and removal technologies that they believe will be able to offset some of the environmental harm caused by fossil fuels during the transition to a more sustainable future, despite such technologies being still in their nascent stages and not yet proven to work at scale.
Those who devised the plan at Microsoft argue that they are responding directly to a new reality: cutting emissions is not enough and all routes to non-catastrophic temperature increase will also require removing carbon from the atmosphere. So, as well as shifting to a 100% supply of renewable energy for all of their data centers, buildings and campuses by 2025, Microsoft outlines a number of carbon reduction methods it is backing to try and hit its bold targets.
To begin, Microsoft will focus on protecting forests and planting trees to capture carbon. This strategy has long been used to offset emissions, but Microsoft is hoping to improve their outcomes by using remote-sensing technology to accurately estimate the carbon storage potential of forests to ensure no major deforestation is occurring in their allotments. To achieve these goals, Microsoft will be partnering with Pachama, a Silicon Valley startup that will survey 60,000 hectares of rainforest in the Amazon, plus an additional 20,000 hectares across north-eastern states of the US for the company.
According to Kesley Perlman, a climate campaigner at the forest conservation NGO Fern, Microsoft's commitment to hi-tech reforestation is encouraging, but she stressed that conservation is a complex, multifaceted process that goes beyond technical issues. "It's not only about how much carbon a forest can hold but also who traditionally uses the forest, how they might be kept out, and how biodiversity will be prioritized," she said.
Biomass energy carbon capture storage
Microsoft will initially focus on nature-based solutions to reduce their carbon footprint over the next five or so years. But in order to start drawing more carbon from the atmosphere than they emit by 2030, it will need to shift to technology-based solutions that can scale up and accelerate carbon removal.
To this end, Microsoft is betting on biomass energy carbon capture storage, otherwise known as BECCS, to transform how energy is generated. Instead of burning coal, a BECCS power plant burns biomass, like wood chips. The carbon produced when burning the biomass is captured before it is released into the atmosphere and then injected at a very high pressure into rock formations deep underground. Not only does this remove carbon from the natural cycle, the biomass absorbs CO2 as it grows.
A world powered by biofuel, however, raises two looming questions. First, scientists are not yet certain if biomass energy will be carbon neutral.
The second concern is that the transition from coal to biofuel would require setting aside vast tracts of arable land – some estimates say one to two times the size of India. According to climate campaigner Perlman this would mean that the energy industry would probably have to compete with food production in a world where 10 billion people will need to be fed, while vastly enlarging industrialized plantations and reducing biodiversity. "We would likely see massive land use change and massive private purchases of land, the knock on impacts of which could be quite dangerous," she said.
Direct air capture
Perhaps the most futuristic of the technologies outlined in Microsoft's carbon negative plan is direct air capture (DAC). This involves machines that essentially function like highly efficient artificial trees, drawing existing carbon out of the air and transforming it into non-harmful carbon-based solids or gasses.
While the image of air-conditioner-like machines sucking carbon out of the air is captivating, capturing CO2 directly from the atmosphere requires a lot of energy and is very expensive. In 2011, extracting carbon from the air cost $600 a ton of CO2. In 2018, estimates brought this down to anywhere between $94 to $232 a ton. But given that Microsoft expects to emit 16m metric tons of carbon this year, if they were to reach carbon zero using only DAC, their bill might cost as much as $3.5bn.
According to Lucas Joppa, chief environmental officer at Microsoft, a large part of the reason why carbon removal remains so expensive is because the markets around these technologies are still immature. The company's strategy over the coming decades is maturing these markets through intensive and directed investment. "We're making a bet on certain technologies that don't exist at the scale or price point we need them to," he said. "But if we want to get them, we need to start investing."
The company, he said, already has a model for raising funds internally to support climate innovation. In July 2012, Microsoft became one of the first companies to institute an internal carbon price, charging different divisions in the business $15 a metric ton of carbon emitted. The funds raised were then used to pay for sustainability improvements, which helped the company achieve their goal of going carbon neutral.
Previously, this carbon price only extended over emissions Microsoft was directly responsible for. According to their new plan, in July this year Microsoft will extend this internal carbon price over emissions produced across direct and indirect emissions. The increased revenue raised from the expanded internal carbon tax, along with a $1bn climate innovation fund, will be used to invest in capture and removal technology. "What we're going to do is put this money in the market in a way that is highly additional," Joppa said. "This is how we're going to get nature-based solutions and tech solutions at a price point and scale we need."
Microsoft's plan for intensive investment in this industry is exciting for those working in the field. Klaus Lackner, a theoretical physicist working on DAC, has been arguing since the 1990s that carbon removal is the only feasible way to stop significant temperature rises. "We've shown that this method is technologically feasible, but nobody has wanted them," he said. "Microsoft have said 'we get it.' It will cost them money, but it will allow the technologies to come online and for the next company to follow their footsteps."
While the technologies that Microsoft are betting on are still in their nascent stages, in the past few years there has been some encouraging progress in the negative emissions industry. Lackner and Arizona State University recently signed a deal with Silicon Kingdom, an Irish-based company, to manufacture his carbon-suck machines. The plan is to install them on wind and solar farms, and then sell the captured carbon to beverage companies to make carbonated drinks. In the UK, Drax power plant, which was once among Europe's most polluting, transitioned from coal to biofuel this year.
But many attempts at scaling carbon negative projects have also failed. The Kemper Project in Mississippi, which was billed as America's flagship carbon capture project, was abandoned in 2017 – it was $5bn over budget, three years late and still not operational.
Given the not insignificant risk of failure, some propose that relying on nascent or future technology as a solution to the climate crisis represents a moral hazard – the promise of carbon removal functions as an incentive for governments and major polluters to not change their behavior now.
According to Chris Adams, a tech worker who organizes an online community of technology professionals agitating for climate action from within the industry, the fact that Microsoft is still partnering with big oil companies demonstrates the moral hazard in action. "They are protecting the fossil fuel industry from changing while the rest of the world will pay most from this gamble if it fails in the long term," he said.
Adams added that many of the encouraging ideas around carbon reduction in Microsoft's plan have come from internal organizing from concerned employees, but that this mostly goes unacknowledged in Microsoft's official vision. Emphasizing future technology while overlooking activism in the present, Adams said, represents a certain way of approaching problems that is typical of technology companies. "If you have spent the last 10 years amassing influence by approaching most problems with technology it's understandable you see all problems through this lens, particularly if you don't have to have conversations about power," he said.
When asked about this concern by the Guardian, Microsoft's Joppa responded that in the short term, the energy demands of a growing global population will probably still need a mix of renewable and traditional energy sources. By remaining in discourse with these industries, he said, Microsoft hopes to help them change and transition to a better model in the future. "It's extremely hard to lead if there's no one there to follow," he added.
As to whether the technology outlined in their plan will scale, he said there is inherent risk, but this is why they call it a "moonshot." "When it comes to our plan it's not like we've got it all figured out," he said. "We're just trying to do what the science says the whole world needs to do. There's really no other choice."
This story originally appeared in The Guardian and is republished here as part of Covering Climate Now, a global journalism collaboration strengthening coverage of the climate story.
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Farmers are the stewards of our planet's precious soil, one of the least understood and untapped defenses against climate change. Because of its massive potential to store carbon and foundational role in growing our food supply, soil makes farming a solution for both climate change and food security.
Soil can act as a natural "carbon sink." Climate Central, 2019
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By Shelly Miller
The vast majority of SARS-CoV-2 transmission occurs indoors, most of it from the inhalation of airborne particles that contain the coronavirus. The best way to prevent the virus from spreading in a home or business would be to simply keep infected people away. But this is hard to do when an estimated 40% of cases are asymptomatic and asymptomatic people can still spread the coronavirus to others.
It’s All About Fresh, Outside Air<p>The safest indoor space is one that constantly has lots of <a href="https://www.epa.gov/indoor-air-quality-iaq/how-does-outdoor-air-enter-building" target="_blank">outside air</a> replacing the stale air inside.</p><p>In commercial buildings, <a href="https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK143277/" target="_blank">outside air is usually pumped in</a> through heating, ventilating and air-conditioning (HVAC) systems. In <a href="https://www.epa.gov/indoor-air-quality-iaq/how-does-outdoor-air-enter-building" target="_blank">homes, outside air gets in</a> through open windows and doors, in addition to seeping in through various nooks and crannies.</p><p>Simply put, the more fresh, outside air inside a building, the better. Bringing in this air dilutes any contaminant in a building, whether a virus or a something else, and <a href="https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1600-0668.2010.00703.x" target="_blank">reduces the exposure of anyone inside</a>. Environmental engineers like me quantify how much outside air is getting into a building using a measure called the <a href="https://doi.org/10.1038/jes.2013.30" target="_blank">air exchange rate</a>. This number quantifies the number of times the air inside a building gets replaced with air from outside in an hour.</p><p>While the exact rate depends on the number of people and size of the room, most experts consider roughly <a href="https://doi.org/10.1034/j.1600-0668.2002.01145.x" target="_blank">six air changes an hour</a> to be good for a 10-foot-by-10-foot room with three to four people in it. In a pandemic this should be higher, with one study from 2016 suggesting that an exchange rate of nine times per hour <a href="https://doi.org/10.1177%2F1420326X16631596" target="_blank">reduced the spread of SARS, MERS and H1N1</a> in a Hong Kong hospital.</p><p>Many buildings in the U.S., <a href="https://doi.org/10.1111/ina.12403" target="_blank">especially schools</a>, do not meet recommended ventilation rates. Thankfully, it can be pretty easy to get more outside air into a building. Keeping <a href="https://doi.org/10.1016/S0960-1481(99)00012-9" target="_blank">windows and doors open</a> is a good start. Putting a box fan in a window blowing out can greatly increase air exchange too. In buildings that don't have operable windows, you can change the mechanical ventilation system to increase how much air it is pumping. But in any room, the more people inside, the faster the air should be replaced.</p>
Using CO2 to Measure Air Circulation<p>So how do you know if the room you're in has enough air exchange? It's actually a pretty hard number to calculate. But there's an easy-to-measure proxy that can help. Every time you exhale, you <a href="https://doi.org/10.1111/ina.12383" target="_blank">release CO2</a> into the air. Since the coronavirus is most often spread by breathing, coughing or talking, you can use <a href="https://pdfs.semanticscholar.org/dd7e/b2870c38f70e5285e5118ed6f158c091f7cf.pdf" target="_blank">CO2 levels</a> to see if the room is filling up with potentially infectious exhalations. The CO2 level lets you estimate if enough fresh outside air is getting in.</p><p>Outdoors, CO2 levels are just above 400 parts per million (ppm). A well ventilated room will have around <a href="https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1600-0668.1999.00003.x" target="_blank">800 ppm of CO2</a>. Any higher than that and it is a sign the room might need more ventilation.</p><p>Last year, researchers in Taiwan reported on the <a href="https://doi.org/10.1111/ina.12639" target="_blank">effect of ventilation on a tuberculosis outbreak</a> at Taipei University. Many of the rooms in the school were underventilated and had CO2 levels above 3,000 ppm. When engineers improved air circulation and got CO2 levels under 600 ppm, <a href="https://doi.org/10.1111/ina.12639" target="_blank">the outbreak completely stopped</a>. According to the research, the increase in ventilation was responsible for 97% of the decrease in transmission.</p><p>Since the coronavirus is spread through the air, higher CO2 levels in a room likely mean there is a <a href="https://doi.org/10.1111/ina.12639" target="_blank">higher chance of transmission</a> if an infected person is inside. Based on the study above, I recommend trying to keep the CO2 levels below 600 ppm. You can buy <a href="https://doi.org/10.5194/amt-7-3325-2014" target="_blank">good CO2 meters</a> for around $100 online; just make sure that they are accurate to within 50 ppm.</p>
Air Cleaners<p>If you are in a room that can't get enough outside air for dilution, consider an air cleaner, also commonly called air purifiers. These machines remove particles from the air, usually using <a href="https://doi.org/10.1016/j.cap.2005.07.013" target="_blank">a filter</a> made of tightly woven fibers. They can <a href="https://shellym80304.files.wordpress.com/2020/06/miller-leiden-et-al-1996.pdf" target="_blank">capture particles containing bacteria and viruses</a> and can help reduce disease transmission.</p><p>The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency says that <a href="https://www.epa.gov/coronavirus/air-cleaners-hvac-filters-and-coronavirus-covid-19" target="_blank">air cleaners can do this for the coronavirus</a>, but not all air cleaners are equal. Before you go out and buy one, there are few things to keep in mind.</p><p>The first thing to consider is <a href="https://shellym80304.files.wordpress.com/2020/06/air-cleaner-report.pdf" target="_blank">how effective an air cleaner's filter is</a>. Your best option is a cleaner that uses a high-efficiency particulate air (<a href="https://doi.org/10.1016/S0021-8502(05)80214-9" target="_blank">HEPA</a>) filter, as these remove more than <a href="https://doi.org/10.1063/1.2771421" target="_blank">99.97% of all particle sizes</a>.</p><p>The second thing to consider is how powerful the cleaner is. The bigger the room – or the more people in it – the more air needs to be cleaned. I worked with some colleagues at Harvard to put together a tool to help teachers and schools determine <a href="https://docs.google.com/spreadsheets/d/1NEhk1IEdbEi_b3wa6gI_zNs8uBJjlSS-86d4b7bW098/edit#gid=1275403500" target="_blank">how powerful of an air cleaner you need for different classroom sizes</a>.</p><p>The last thing to consider is the validity of the claims made by the company producing the air cleaner.</p><p>The Association of Home Appliance Manufacturers certifies air cleaners, so the AHAM Verifide seal is a good place to start. Additionally, the California Air Resources Board has a <a href="https://ww2.arb.ca.gov/our-work/programs/air-cleaners-ozone-products/california-certified-air-cleaning-devices" target="_blank">list of air cleaners</a> that are certified as safe and effective, though not all of them use HEPA filters.</p>
Keep Air Fresh or Get Outside<p>Both the <a href="https://www.who.int/news-room/commentaries/detail/transmission-of-sars-cov-2-implications-for-infection-prevention-precautions" target="_blank">World Health Organization</a> and <a href="https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/daily-life-coping/deciding-to-go-out.html" target="_blank">U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention</a> say that poor ventilation increases the risk of transmitting the coronavirus.</p><p>If you are in control of your indoor environment, make sure you are getting enough fresh air from outside circulating into the building. A CO2 monitor can help give you a clue if there is enough ventilation, and if CO2 levels start going up, open some windows and <a href="https://www.advisory.com/daily-briefing/2020/07/17/outdoor-gathering" target="_blank">take a break outside</a>. If you can't get enough fresh air into a room, an air cleaner might be a good idea. If you do get an air cleaner, be aware that they don't remove CO2, so even though the air might be safer, CO2 levels could still be high in the room.</p><p>If you walk into a building and it feels hot, stuffy and crowded, chances are that there is not enough ventilation. Turn around and leave.</p><p>By paying attention to air circulation and filtration, improving them where you can and staying away from places where you can't, you can add another powerful tool to your anti-coronavirus toolkit.</p>
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The tiny island nation of Mauritius, known for its turquoise waters, vibrant corals and diverse ecosystem, is in the midst of an environmental catastrophe after a Japanese cargo ship struck a reef off the country's coast two weeks ago. That ship, which is still intact, has since leaked more than 1,000 metric tons of oil into the Indian Ocean. Now, a greater threat looms, as a growing crack in the ship's hull might cause the ship to split in two and release the rest of the ship's oil into the water, NPR reported.
On Friday, Prime Minister Pravind Jugnauth declared a state of environmental emergency.
France has sent a military aircraft carrying pollution control equipment from the nearby island of Reunion to help mitigate the disaster. Additionally, Japan has sent a six-member team to assist as well, the BBC reported.
The teams are working to pump out the remaining oil from the ship, which was believed to be carrying 4,000 metric tons of fuel.
"We are expecting the worst," Mauritian Wildlife Foundation manager Jean Hugues Gardenne said on Monday, The Weather Channel reported. "The ship is showing really big, big cracks. We believe it will break into two at any time, at the maximum within two days. So much oil remains in the ship, so the disaster could become much worse. It's important to remove as much oil as possible. Helicopters are taking out the fuel little by little, ton by ton."
Sunil Dowarkasing, a former strategist for Greenpeace International and former member of parliament in Mauritius, told CNN that the ship contains three oil tanks. The one that ruptured has stopped leaking oil, giving disaster crews time to use a tanker and salvage teams to remove oil from the other two tanks before the ship splits.
By the end of Tuesday, the crew had removed over 1,000 metric tons of oil from the ship, NPR reported, leaving about 1,800 metric tons of oil and diesel, according to the company that owns the ship. So far the frantic efforts are paying off. Earlier today, a local police chief told BBC that there were still 700 metric tons aboard the ship.
The oil spill has already killed marine animals and turned the turquoise water black. It's also threatening the long-term viability of the country's coral reefs, lagoons and shoreline, NBC News reported.
"We are starting to see dead fish. We are starting to see animals like crabs covered in oil, we are starting to see seabirds covered in oil, including some which could not be rescued," said Vikash Tatayah, conservation director at Mauritius Wildlife Foundation, according to The Weather Channel.
While the Mauritian authorities have asked residents to leave the clean-up to officials, locals have organized to help.
"People have realized that they need to take things into their hands. We are here to protect our fauna and flora," environmental activist Ashok Subron said in an AFP story.
Reuters reported that sugar cane leaves, plastic bottles and human hair donated by locals are being sewn into makeshift booms.
Human hair absorbs oil, but not water, so scientists have long suggested it as a material to contain oil spills, Gizmodo reported. Mauritians are currently collecting as much human hair as possible to contribute to the booms, which consist of tubes and nets that float on the water to trap the oil.
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Environmentalists and ornithologists found a friend in a federal court on Tuesday when a judge struck down a Trump administration attempt to allow polluters to kill birds without repercussions through rewriting the Migratory Treaty Bird Act (MBTA).
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By Elizabeth Claire Alberts
There are trillions of microplastics in the ocean — they bob on the surface, float through the water column, and accumulate in clusters on the seafloor. With plastic being so ubiquitous, it's inevitable that marine organisms, such as sharks, will ingest them.
Polyproylene fibers found in one of the sampled sharks. Kristian Parton
Spiny dogfish. NOAA / Wikimedia Commons<p>"There appear to be two routes for these particles to end up in the sharks," Parton said. "The first through their food source [such as] crustaceans. Their prey may already contain these fibers, and consequently it's passed to the shark through bioaccumulation up the food chain. The second pathway is direct ingestion from the sediment. As these sharks feed, they'll often suck up sediment into their mouths, some of this is expelled straight away, although some is swallowed, therefore fibers and particles that may have sunk down into the seabed may be directly ingested from the surrounding sediment as these sharks feed."</p><p>Some sharks only contained a few plastic particles, but others contained dozens. The larger the shark, the more plastic was in it, the findings suggested. The highest number of microplastics was found in an individual bull huss, which had 154 polypropylene fibers inside its stomach and intestines.</p><p>"It's perhaps likely this individual shark had swallowed a larger piece of fishing rope/netting and this has broken down during digestive processes within the shark, and also broken down into smaller pieces during our analysis," Parton said.</p>
Lesser-spotted dogfish caught as bycatch. Kristian Parton<p>While this study only examined the stomach and digestive tracts of demersal sharks, Parton says it's possible that plastic would be present in other parts of the sharks' bodies, such as the liver and muscle tissue. However, more research would be needed to prove this.</p><p>At the moment, there is also limited understanding of how microplastic ingestion would impact a shark's health, although microplastics are known to negatively influence feeding behavior, development, reproduction and life span of zooplankton and crustaceans.</p><p>"If we can show that these fibers contain inorganic pollutants attached to them, then that could have real consequences for these shark species at a cellular level, impacting various internal body systems," Parton said.</p>
Parton in the lab. Kristian Parton<p>This new study demonstrates how pervasive and destructive plastic pollution can be in the marine environment, according to Will McCallum, head of oceans for Greenpeace U.K.</p><p>"Our addiction to plastics combined with the lack of mechanisms to protect our oceans is suffocating marine life," McCallum said in a statement. "Sharks sit on top of the marine food web and play a vital role in ocean ecosystems. Yet, they are completely exposed to pollutants and other human impactful activities. We need to stop producing so much plastic and create a network of ocean sanctuaries to give wildlife space to recover. The ocean is not our dump, marine life deserves better than plastic."</p>
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By Loveday Wright and Stuart Braun
After a Japanese-owned oil tanker struck a reef off Mauritius on July 25, a prolonged period of inaction is threatening to become an ecological disaster.
<div id="bb0a7" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="e5aefc0fff61ab1aea2f4b03c5399864"><blockquote class="twitter-tweet twitter-custom-tweet" data-twitter-tweet-id="1291765757013983238" data-partner="rebelmouse"><div style="margin:1em 0">The #oilspill is devastating but I want to honour the community mobilisation at the Mahebourg waterfront today (to… https://t.co/UWFkZFdjdi</div> — Fabiola Monty (@Fabiola Monty)<a href="https://twitter.com/LFabiolaMonty/statuses/1291765757013983238">1596815930.0</a></blockquote></div><p>"Booms are made of nylon mesh filled with #sugarcane straws all hand-stitched by Mauritian volunteers, empty plastic bottles used as buoys," described Mauritian journalist Zeenat Hansrod in a tweet. </p>
How to Tackle Oil Spills<p>The method for tackling oil spills depends on several factors, including the type and amount of oil in question, location and weather conditions.</p><p>"Once the oil comes to shore, the more intensive the cleaning technique. You can risk causing further damage," said Nicky Cariglia, an independent consultant at Marittima, who specializes in marine pollution. </p><p>"If you wanted to remove all traces of oil, the techniques available become increasingly aggressive the less oil that remains. In mangroves, you would have the added risk of causing damage by trampling," Cariglia told DW. Highly sensitive mangrove ecosystems line the Mauritius east coast that is threatened by the current spill.</p><p>Because oil normally has a lower density than water, it floats on the surface of the ocean. This means that for clean-up action to be most effective, it should happen very quickly after a spill, before the oil disperses. </p>
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