The Carbon Brief Interview: Chris Skidmore

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Chris Skidmore has been both UK energy and science minister and led an independent government review into net-zero published in 2023. He recently resigned as a Conservative MP in protest at a UK government bill to boost new oil and gas production.

  • On realising climate change’s importance: “I realised that, actually, this was a mainstream issue now that was driving economic change and development.”
  • On meeting Sir David Attenborough: “He just said: ‘Well, just get on with [tackling climate change]. You haven’t got any time, just get on with it.’”
  • On the 2022 Conservative leadership contest: “I took a purposeful decision then that I was going to do all I could to try and protect and preserve net-zero.”
  • On being asked to conduct a net-zero review: “I was going to grip that with two hands, regardless of who was prime minister.”
  • On the government’s response to the review: “They haven’t really gripped that narrative in a way that I hoped they would.”
  • On government action on climate change: “I think the government has been guilty of ‘green hushing’ in that, actually, the department and the excellent civil servants and officials who are working tirelessly on this agenda are getting on with it.”
  • On resigning: “I’ve never been someone to rock the boat. But it is the accumulation of all different sides of the narrative building up that meant that I didn’t really feel that there was a choice.”
  • On the prime minister’s reaction: “I’d asked previously for a meeting with the prime minister earlier in the year, but had received no response.”
  • On the government’s decision to push new oil and gas: “There’s been a pivot towards trying to create a culture war on the back of net-zero as somehow being a measure that is juxtaposed to energy security. It is completely false.”
  • On the government’s reluctance to reduce oil and gas emissions: “There’s been a consistent pattern of favouritism towards one particular sector at the expense of others.”
  • On the next election: “You will probably see at the general election, a false narrative between claiming that the £28bn investment in green industries and technologies is somehow going to be a cost and a burden. Well, it’s not.”
  • On GB News and TalkTV: “I refuse to go on them, they’re not proper media channels. Whereas most of my colleagues seem to be presenting them.”
  • On UK newspapers critical of climate action: “[They’re] trying to undermine, make it personal, use misinformation.”
  • On UK climate policy in five years: “I’m still optimistic that the UK can return to its leadership position if it wants to.”

Carbon Brief: You’ve said in the past that you’ve been on a journey when it comes to seeing climate change as an important issue. Can you please explain that journey?

Chris Skidmore: I first became an MP nearly 14 years ago and I focused a lot locally on the environment from that sort of perspective of the countryside. My constituency was on the edge of Bristol, between Bristol and Bath, and I had campaigned on issues around the protection of the countryside and the green belt. To be honest with you, at that time 14 years ago, I wasn’t aware of the science that was developing around climate change. I was sort of aware of the Paris Agreement happening and [then-secretary of state for energy and climate change] Amber Rudd coming in to meet [then-chancellor] George Osborne when I was the parliamentary private secretary for the Treasury.

But I think, for me, I became science innovation research minister in 2018 and you get the chance to go around the country and meet lots of fantastic academics and researchers, but also start-ups and scale-ups, so I think that was when I began to sort of register that action on climate change wasn’t just a green issue. I think the challenge has been in the past with politics in the UK is – and this is not a criticism – you see the Green Party as holding the flame for looking at issues around climate change. And I realised that, actually, this was a mainstream issue now that was driving economic change and development. I’d always written about research and development and the importance of spending more on R&D  – actually, people criticise me for the writing a chapter in Britannia Unchained, but if you looked at that chapter, Buccaneers, is it’s all about how the UK should invest more money in R&D, like Israel, in order to get a rate of return and get new economies. And I started to realise a lot of the work was around decarbonisation, tackling climate change, new forms of renewable clean power, energy – whether it’s new nuclear, whether that’s solar. And so then when I had this opportunity to become interim energy minister in 2019, I seized it with both hands and I told the chief whip Greg Clark that I’ll be able to do both jobs together. Because I saw the opportunity to really push forwards on decarbonisation. And, at that time, I then had the chance to sign net-zero into law. And I’ve always said, when I go around and do talks, I’ve never expected that to have the impact that it had.

I left government in 2020. I was involved then in the all-party group on the environment. I think that was probably part of the journey. I was no longer a government minister, but then I was able to build relationships with [Green Party politician] Caroline Lucas, with the members of the Labour Party, which then brought me to that journey of then having the net-zero review. It was an independent review, but people were obviously naturally sceptical – as a Conservative MP, how can I be independent? So I really tried to go out and meet the SNP, the Welsh Labour government, the Green Party, the Liberal Democrat Party to really demonstrate that this would be cross-party and that I would stand up to my own party. I was going to set out the truth and the reality of what needs to be done and I wouldn’t pull any punches. During the review, we had that vote on fracking and I refused to back a confidence motion. I was expecting to lose the party whip and be sacked at that moment in time. So to me, it’s not a surprise that I’ve gone now.

Zoom screenshot from interview with Chris Skidmore

For some people who maybe haven’t followed climate policy in detail, it seems like a sudden moment that I’ve taken this snap decision. But actually, going back to 2022, I’ve been at a point where I’ve said that I’m more interested in conserving the planet than conservatism – and that I was going to put net-zero front and centre of my own political values and philosophy. And that’s what I’ve done. And the inevitable consequence of following that journey – which began to accelerate up to Rishi Sunak’s net-zero row-back back in September – was that I was going to have to stand on my principles and that I couldn’t remain part of a party that was taking decisions that were so juxtaposed to my own values and what I believed.

CB: In that journey, can you think of one standout moment –  a scientific paper or a talk perhaps – that really convinced you of the importance of climate change, that made you think: ‘Gosh, this is actually a really big problem.’?

CS: When I was science minister, before I became energy minister – so it must have been in that early 2019 period – David Attenborough came into the House of Commons. I said it would be great if I could sit down and have a chat with him.

As science minister, I was responsible for the British Antarctic Survey. I think the one moment for me, along with that meeting with David Attenborough, was that the UK government funded this big Antarctic research laboratory that was then built on an iceberg. And then they had to abandon it. And I was basically told – it wasn’t then public knowledge – that these cracks had opened up. They’d spent millions of pounds on this research station only to find four years later that it’s going to be impossible to use. I thought this is just accelerating far faster than anyone thought. If people thought they could build a research station on this glacier that then now had to be abandoned, this is definitely something that needs more serious focus.

Then I met Attenborough, through the British Antarctic Survey, in the House of Commons. I said to Attenborugh: “Is there anything you’d like me to focus on?” And he just said: “Well, just get on with it. You haven’t got any time, just get on with it.” And I think the way he said that to me made me sort of realise that there wasn’t really any time to be waiting or holding endless consultations.

Then there was the net-zero moment itself. I didn’t realise the impact it would have. That’s driven me to realise that the leadership position the UK can take is so precious because net-zero went viral after we became the first G7 country [to commit to it]. If we can deliver that impact with net-zero, we could have done so with oil and gas. And that’s why I have this incredible frustration that, if it wasn’t for this small amount of oil and gas that we’re trying to extract from the North Sea, we could have had a net-zero moment on defossilisation and the phase-out of fossil fuels. Also, there was a moment when we brought all of the NGOs into a room. Extinction Rebellion, Greenpeace. And I said to them: “There is a moment now where the prime minister wishes to achieve net-zero, but if you say it’s not good enough, then it probably is never going to happen.” There are challenges on both sides with net-zero, I recognise for some people it doesn’t go far enough or fast enough and for others, it’s too far too fast. But there was this moment where I felt a sense of recognition in the room that people were going to have to leave their own organisational pride at the door and that we’d all have to work together. Net-zero wouldn’t have happened if it wasn’t for people coming together. And, if we could achieve that with net-zero in one moment in time where people didn’t fall apart opposing each other, then we could do the same elsewhere. So I think probably two perspectives, one from the scientific perspective and then one from this opportunity of cross-party and cross-organisational collaboration.

CB: As you mentioned, former prime minister Liz Truss instructed you to conduct a review into net-zero. What was your sense of the reasons behind that decision at the time?

CS: Just to rewind back a couple of months, I’d set up the net-zero support group. Because, in January 2022, there was a story in the Guardian that was front-page – and also ran significantly in the BBC – that said: “Tory MPs rowback on net-zero.” It was talking about this net-zero scrutiny group, which had produced a letter signed by about five MPs. I remember thinking: “Not in my name is this going to happen.” So I set up this net-zero support group, which ran for a little bit until I then became chair of the all-party group on the environment. And then Boris Johnson fell. They had the leadership contest – and I took a purposeful decision then that I was going to do all I could to try and protect and preserve our net-zero commitment. So that would mean risking my own political capital to ensure that that happened. So I organised a hustings that I got [COP26 president and Conservative politician] Alok Sharma to chair – that was on the hottest day of the year in the summer when parts of east London were on fire. I organised a Conservative environment pledge, one of the pledges was to agree to net-zero by 2050. It got to a point where we had commitments from Rishi Sunak and from Liz Truss. Liz Truss said that she wanted to do net-zero by 2050 in a way that was pro-business, pro-growth. She basically had this pro-business pro-growth message. And then I initially backed Rishi Sunak. I was then highly annoyed that, having met with him, he didn’t tell me that he was going to come out publicly and say he wanted a ban on onshore wind. I felt that was not an accurate reflection of what he’d said to me in private about net-zero. And Liz Truss was going to win. And I took a decision – again, one that sort of burned through my political capital – to defect because I wanted to make sure that I might have a set opportunity to own and lead the policy [on net-zero]. I didn’t want to become a minister again. I’ve been there and done that.

So, she rang me up and she’d like me to lead this independent review on the basis of the commitment she made that she wanted to do net-zero by 2050 in a way that was pro-business and pro-growth. And I asked how long I would get to do it. I said: “Can I have six months?” And she said: “No, you can have three.” It was something that, once the prime minister had asked me to do that, I felt that I got to the place where I needed to be, which was to return to mark my homework having set the net-zero commitment. I wasn’t involved with the net-zero strategy, I was out of government in 2021. So I now have this moment to come back to provide the detail, in terms of that strategy and the pathways. And I was going to grip that with two hands, regardless of who was prime minister.

CB: Do you feel that the conclusions of your net-zero review have been listened to?

CS: I think on the face of it, I did my own analysis of the government’s official response – having an official government response that was recommendation by recommendation doesn’t always happen. I mean, where was the government’s response to the Dieter Helm review on the cost of energy? They didn’t even respond to it in the end. I didn’t want to make the mistake of the Helm review, which was to just go off and write something and give it to government. So I’d gone out purposely to make the net-zero review the biggest engagement exercise on net-zero ever conducted. You know, 1,800 responses. It wasn’t my review. That is what I said to people. I said this is your review. And I think, having done that, I placed the government in a position where they would have to recognise it. And also the totality of the review, it was 340 pages of A4, it’s 500 pages in the new book that has come out. I’d gone to see Nick Stern. Some people advised me to do a strategic review. I decided, in the end, it was every area of net-zero that needed to be covered. And as a result, I think the government needed to respond to this moment.

There were 129 recommendations in the review. Initially, the government took forward about 100 of those recommendations. Then they brought in another one, the net-zero duty for Ofgem. There’s a couple they’ve gradually brought in. We also had a timeline for each one because you can accept a recommendation and then kick the can down the road. So they accepted about 70 on the timescale we recommended. We’ve seen some significant shifts on that. Lots of things have come forward: rebalancing costs of electricity and gas, solar task forces, a number of recommendations around nuclear that the government took forward even last week. So I do think the government has been guilty of ‘green hushing’ in that, actually, the department and the excellent civil servants and officials who are working tirelessly on this agenda – who believe passionately in this agenda – are getting on with it and doing it.

The challenge I think for me with the government’s response to the net-zero review was obviously that I’d also set out, in part one, that this is the economic opportunity, that we need a response effectively to the IRA [US Inflation Reduction Act] and the EU Green Deal – and we’ve not really seen that response come forward. So £4.5bn on new technologies or green industries doesn’t really touch the sides in comparison to the US and the EU’s response. And also this long-term programmatic approach – what I call Mission Zero. The certainty, the clarity, the consistency and the continuity – the four C’s that we identified in the review – that should make a mission. We need a 10-year plan for retrofit, we need a 10-year plan for nuclear. The government’s committed to a 20-year plan for CCS [carbon capture and storage], so why not elsewhere? That brings down the costs. It brings down the learning cost of the technology, it brings down the labour market costs – it makes net-zero cheaper to do. And so they haven’t really gripped that narrative in a way that I hoped they would. The 10 missions that I set out are about taking forward long-term planning and long-term frameworks across several spending reviews. So, yes, to the detail of the individual policy recommendations, I think the government response – and this is pre net-zero row-back as well – was welcome. It’s just that wider, more important point to be honest with you, that if you’re going to commit, you’ve got to commit long term.

CB: As you’ve mentioned you’ve had high-level positions under several Conservative prime ministers. How do you think attitudes towards climate change have shifted in that time with each new prime minister?

CS: I guess the challenge is, whose attitude? I’ve seen myself, my constituents and people who contact me, have become more informed, deeply passionate and engaged on this issue. I have also seen an explosion in community projects that are highly capable, a citizen-led focus on delivering on climate change. In a way this groundswell has come up into local authorities. I’ve met with local authorities across the country and have been deeply impressed by their knowledge. I think we’ve seen this silent revolution take place where individuals have come forwards. Also, you know, we’ve seen websites like yourself being able to provide people with the stories, best-practice examples from across the globe. I passionately feel – and one of the reasons why I’ve left politics – that I can do more on the outside now to help deliver and implement and have an impact that I can in Westminster as a single individual independent MP simply voting time and time again against the government. I think also we’ve seen a number of sort of ginger groups set up, whether in the Labour Party or the Conservative Party, that are trying to push on climate action. So I really do feel that the tapestry of organisations and the climate community [is increasing]. I also think academics are getting better at disseminating their research more immediately. I think, previously, there was a time lag between what was in a paper [and the public knowing about it].  As science minister, I was always keen to make sure there was open-access data, but I think the ability for research to get out into the public domain faster is also informing decisions that can be made more effectively.

I think from a politician’s perspective, I have taken a decision partly because I believe that we are living through the challenge of our generation. If we don’t act now we could face catastrophe in 20 years or even closer than that. I think in 10 years time the world’s going to be a very different place and we’re seeing investors already recognising the risks of maintaining investment in fossil fuel. It’s going to get even faster. The next generation is not having any truck with this sort of compromise approach that somehow claims, Janus-faced, that we can somehow, on the one hand, phase out fossil fuels and, at the same time, produce new fossil fuels. It is unpalatable to me, Chris Skidmore five years ago, that I would have taken the decision that I have taken – I’ve never been someone to rock the boat. But it is the accumulation of all different sides of the narrative building up that meant that I didn’t really feel that there was a choice.

CB: As you mentioned, you resigned over the government’s plans to continue to maximise new oil and gas through the offshore petroleum licensing bill. Did you try to raise your objections to the bill with the prime minister prior to resigning and what was his reaction?

CS: I spoke in the King’s speech, saying that I would not back the King’s speech because of this bill. So I was half expecting the whip to be taken away from me at that point. I didn’t vote on the King’s speech, which in itself is a confidence issue, but then I received no reaction from the whips, no one rang me up angrily. I’d asked previously for a meeting with the prime minister earlier in the year, but had received no response. I don’t want to make this about personalities. I’ve said in the past, prime ministers will come and go, if people don’t want to engage with me, I’m not someone who shows any sort of pride in that. I just felt that I’d made my case repeatedly on the floor of the House of Commons. I had a conversation with Claire Cothiuno when she became new energy minister and set out very clearly my opposition to new oil and gas licences in my conversation with her.

But there does come a point where you can no longer argue black is white and continue in a party. I think it’s quite also clear from my comments that it would be the greatest mistake of [Sunak’s] premiership, if he rowed back on some of the commitments on net-zero – and they did that in the summer. So it shouldn’t have come as any surprise that I took the decision that I had to take. But, ultimately, that’s a decision for them. If they wish to engage with me the ball is in their court. They weren’t going to change. They weren’t going to somehow remove the bill. There’s no way you can amend that bill to make it somehow more palatable. And so, I had to take a decision, both to resign the whip and stand down, in order to demonstrate that we can’t [do this] as politicians in the UK – where we could have led [by phasing out fossil fuels], given that we’re scraping the bottom of the barrel of oil that’s not even going to be sold on domestic markets. The narrative was so false and so wrong, the Twitter graphics that were going out claiming: “This oil is ours.” Unless we’re going to bring in a bill to nationalise that oil, that is deeply mistaken. I couldn’t play a part in that.

There were other issues like the Rwanda Bill. Equally, I had spoken out about that and I didn’t vote for that either. But this is the reason why I feel strongly and passionately. If I’d stayed as an independent, people would have said: “You’ve changed party allegiance. You should resign your seat.” And, actually, 14 years ago, I introduced a bill myself saying if you change your political allegiance, you should have an automatic byelection. So I’ve stood by that principle as well. And I’m not having any truck with anyone that claims that I should have somehow stayed because it’s up to my constituents, having chosen Conservative, to have that opportunity to reelect the MP that they choose. I’m empowering my constituents and the point here is that I tried my hardest to get across the importance of this issue that was only raised further at COP28, but they continued to push forward.

CB: Why do you think the government is set on maximising new oil and gas despite, as you lay out in your letter, the clear case that it will do little to help energy and economic security?

CS: I think decisions are taken at the top and there was a clear change in government policy as a result of a change in leadership. So, again, I don’t want to go into sort of personalities and it’s up to journalists like yourself to try to explore those reasons. I don’t know myself why those individual decisions were taken by Number 10. They were not necessarily taken by BEIS [the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy – which has now been split into the Department for Energy Security and Net-Zero, the Department for Science Innovation and Technology and the Department for Business and Trade]. But obviously there’s been a pivot towards trying to create a culture war on the back of net-zero as somehow being a measure that is juxtaposed to energy security. It is completely false. Net-zero is energy security. There couldn’t be any stronger way to deliver energy security than diversification of supply and moving away from foreign-owned volatile fossil fuels. But this demonstration of creating a department of net-zero and energy security as if they were juxtaposed…They fit together.

But we’re in the run up to a general election. The Labour Party would have been clear that there should be no new fossil fuel licences. A really important point is that no one has ever said that we shouldn’t be using our existing fossil fuel on the net-zero balanced pathway. But everyone has said no additional new fossil fuel licences. And this blurring of the lines – somehow claiming that you’re going to cost 200,000 jobs. Those jobs will be lost in 10 years’ time because private investors will have disinvested in fossil fuels in the North Sea. These will be stranded assets – as well as stranded communities. And it makes me angry that people are playing a culture war, claiming that, on the other side, somehow those that back net-zero are not thinking this through. Of course, we know we thought the production emissions discussion is a false one because, ultimately, in that case, why not buy all your oil and gas from Norway? which is the cleanest and low-carbon product.

But all the recommendations in my review around [the oil and gas sector, such as] bringing forward a methane flaring ban – which has been in place in Norway since 1971 – the government refused to do it. I backed the CCC’s [Climate Change Committee] recommendations that we should move further faster on electrification and decarbonising oil and gas. But the government backed the North Sea Transition Authority’s deal, which was drawn up by the sector itself, marking its own homework. There’s a real challenge around that gap, which is basically the government has allowed the sector [to do as it pleases]. And I’m not demonising that sector, it is just that everyone should be treated fairly. If every industry is expected to decarbonise and be part of the emissions trading scheme, why should there be an exemption for one particular sector? I said we should create a net-zero fund on the back of the tax on fossil-fuel companies and that should be then hypothecated into net-zero projects. Again, the government refused to take it forward. So there’s been a consistent pattern of favouritism towards one particular sector at the expense of others. And we need to have a just transition. A just transition means treating everyone equally and recognising that everyone’s got their role to play – and no one should have one particular advantage. But on that jobs point, I’m extremely worried that this becomes a similar situation to what happened with coal. In that there is not enough fossil fuels to be extracted, they will become evermore expensive. And at a time when everyone else is moving their investments into renewables and clean technology and clean power, we will be spending taxpayers money on tax breaks for industries that will be rapidly out of date. We should be transitioning those jobs. They are highly-skilled, fantastic workers. They could be working both on renewable clean power and decarbonisation as well. And if we leave it too late, those communities will pay the price. And I’m incredibly concerned that this is short-term politics at the expense of long-term security – not just energy security, but the job security of this country.

CB: What role do you see climate change playing in the next general election?

CS: I think that the lines have been drawn now. My resignation from the House of Commons, I hope, will reflect the point that not all Conservatives who believe that Conservatism should be about conserving the planet agree on this strategy. There is a chance that the government might wish to change its mind, we’ll see what happens in the run up to the election. Obviously, they’ve changed their mind on a number of other attitudes on the back of relaunches that took place last year. I think the challenge is going to be to what extent this is a domestic election versus a foreign affairs election. There’s a number of issues in the Middle East that could produce black swan moments, we’ll have to wait and see. There is also a key challenge that I’m interested in, from an economic point of view – put aside issues of culture – which is, do you invest to make things cheaper in the longer term, saving taxpayers money or do you claim that that investment is somehow borrowing and a cost on taxpayers? And we’ve begun to see this narrative develop on the battle lines. I personally believe that the Labour Party’s decision to come out and say that we should be investing in green industries, in the technologies and jobs of tomorrow, is the right one. I can’t deny that I’ve made that case around investment in the past – in R&D, when I was science minister. If you get this right and you bring in inward investment, the UK can be a true leader and also develop huge opportunities for regeneration across the country – jobs, growth – otherwise we get left behind. You will probably see at the general election, a false narrative between claiming that the £28bn investment in green industries and technologies is somehow going to be a cost and a burden. Well, it’s not. Anyone just needs to read my net-zero review to recognise you need to even spend more than that in the longer term, the CCC set that out as you go forwards to 2050. But, equally, my review stated that if we delay this spend, it’s going to cost billions and potentially add 28 base percentage points to debt-to-GDP ratios. So there’s an economic case to be won, as well as a values case, at this election.

CB: Carbon Brief analysis published recently found that right-wing newspapers in the UK published a record number of editorials criticising actions to tackle climate change in 2023. What do you think of the role of the media in casting doubt over the benefits of net-zero?

CS: I think there’s a challenge with some of the media. You have this new media that’s developed very fast – GB News, Talk TV. I refuse to go on them, they’re not proper media channels. Whereas most of my colleagues seem to be presenting them. That creates content that then creates that funnel mechanism that exists on social media, by which people can identify with particular conspiracies or causes that propagate misinformation and disinformation. It’s a huge challenge.

Mainstream media, how to tackle that challenge is equally problematic. Because we’ve had a number of papers – I’m not going to necessarily name them – that are on a relentless crusade, claiming that net-zero is a culture war and a cost. They’ve got particular commentators who write personal attacks. There were a number of personal attacks written about my resignation in the mainstream press that were not balanced. I think there’s a challenge with those who are against or have an agenda in claiming the action in climate is [wrong] – they’re either the delayers or they’re the deniers. It’s a continual push. And, also, [they’re] trying to undermine, make it personal, use misinformation. Whereas, on the other hand, with certain charities and NGOs, once a decision that’s been made that is the right one, they bank it and move on. And they’re not fighting the same fight. On the one hand, negative information on climate and net-zero is relentless, whereas those who know that the case is the right one [aren’t doing anything], it’s not at the moment an equal process. There needs to be a greater challenge around how to push harder from those that know [what is right].

I try my best to do that myself. I go around the country making the case for net-zero. I will use the regional local press as well. I’m determined to make sure that I can play my part in 2024. Again, as I did with the net-zero review, showing that net-zero is an opportunity, it’s not a cost. That it is a benefit. It’s going to make people warmer, in terms of having better insulated homes, it’s going to make them wealthier, in terms of lower bills. It’s not going to make them richer or poorer. I don’t want to necessarily be fighting a culture war on the terms of the individuals that I know are wrong and creating false narratives. But equally, putting the case out there, the media needs to embrace that. Also, they need to not give an equal platform to people who’ve only got three mates in a pub or to a party that has no elected MPs. Why should they be given an equal platform to mainstream scientific opinion that recognises the challenge we face?

CB: Finally, where do you think that the UK’s climate policy will be in five to 10 years and how do you think it will sit within a global picture? 

CS: I’m still optimistic that the UK can return to its leadership position if it wants to. We are world-leading in terms of the policy frameworks, the academics, the NGOs, the businesses, everybody looks to us and I think that’s still the case. I hope that, if we can get back to a stage of moving away from this culture war, if there’s a change in administration, if there’s an opportunity to signal that the UK is willing to lead again, then we can. We’ve still got the most ambitious NDC [nationally determined contribution under the Paris Agreement] and if we can reach that it’s totemic in demonstrating that we can deliver net-zero at the same time as growing the economy.

CB: Thank you so much for your time.

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