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Vehicles, a growing source of CO2
In 2021, the Chinese Communist Party pledged to reduce carbon emissions per unit of economic output by 18 percent over the next five years. China aimed to cut carbon emissions per unit of economic growth by more than 4 percent in 2014 year and more than 3.5 percent in 2015 as it tried to meet a binding 17-percent target set in its 2011-2015 five-year plan. Environmentalists say China needs take stronger measures to reduce its dependency on coal that has made it the world's biggest emitter of climate changing gasses. [Source: Associated Press, March 15, 2021; David Stanway and Kathy Chen, Reuters, May 26, 2014]

According to Associated Press: The Communist Party has rejected binding emissions commitments, citing its economic development needs.Beijing has avoided joining governments that promised to phase out use of coal-fired power. In a 2020 speech to the United Nations, Xi said carbon emissions will peak by 2030, but he announced no target for the amount. Xi said China aims for carbon neutrality, or removing as much from the atmosphere by planting trees and other tactics as is emitted by industry and households, by 2060. [Source: Joe McDonald, Associated Press, April 24, 2022]

China is by far the world’s largest user of coal, which accounts for almost two-thirds of its energy use and has made it the No 1 emitter of climate-changing greenhouse gases. In recent years China has overtaken the U.S. as the world leader in renewable power development. According to Associated Press: But it has also struggled to integrate its sprawling wind and solar facilities into an electricity grid still dominated by coal-fuelled power plants. At the same time, Chinese leaders face growing public pressure at home to reduce the health-damaging smog that blankets many urban areas. [Source: Associated Press, June 7, 2017]

Communist party leaders pledged that greenhouse gas emissions would peak no later than 2030 under the Paris pact, and start to fall after that. They have cancelled the planned construction of more than 100 new coal-fired power plants and plan to invest at least $360bn in green energy projects by the end of the decade. The nation’s consumption of coal fell in 2016 for a third consecutive year, but rebounded slightly in 2017. It could meet its 2030 target a decade early.

In March 2017, China’s top economic planner said China would cut d coal output by more than 150 million tonnes in 2017 as part of China’s efforts to tackle pollution and global warming. A report by National Development and Reform Commission (NDRC) said it would shut or stop construction of coal-fired power plants with capacity of more than 50 million kilowatts. In its report, the NDRC said it would cut energy consumption per capita by 3.4 percent and curb carbon intensity by 4 percent in 2017. By 2020, the government has said it aimed to close 800 million tonnes of outdated coal capacity. The 2017 targets came after the world's top coal consumer far exceeded its 2016 goals to eliminate 250 million tonnes of coal. Coal output fell 9 percent to 3.64 billion tonnes in 2016 but did not reach the goal that set. [Source: Reuters, March 5, 2017]

China and International Climate Change Agreements

China signed the Kyoto Protocol in May 1998 and ratified it April 2002. It was largely exempt because it is considered a developing country. Kyoto Protocol, failed to stop the rise of planet-warming carbon pollution in large part because of a standoff between China and the United States, which never signed the deal. As recently as 2009, China argued that climate action was a Western conspiracy. The U.S., its leaders said, was devising new ways to suppress growth in the developing world. After that Chinese leaders took a position shared by many developing nations: that the developed world got rich through the use of coal, oil and other fossil fuels, so it should shoulder much of the burden of shifting the world's economies to cleaner energy.

According to the New York Times “Under the Kyoto plan, developed economies, including the United States, were to slash their fossil fuel emissions, while developing countries like China were exempt. The United States refused to ratify the treaty, while China went on to become the world’s largest carbon polluter. In the following years, the superpowers remained at an impasse over climate change. Many other governments also refused to cut emissions, arguing that if the world’s top two polluters were not acting, they shouldn’t have to, either. [Source: Coral Davenport, New York Times, November 12, 2014]

In April 2016, the United States and China, issued a joint statement confirming that both countries would sign the Paris Climate Agreement. The agreement "did actually lead to a seismic shift in climate politics globally," said Paul Bodnar, senior director for energy and climate change at the National Security Council under Obama. With China on board many other countries were more open to joining. But many experts criticized China’s target of reaching a peak in its carbon emissions by 2030 as little more than following the normal course of events.

After it was announced that China would join the Paris deal, Chinese President Xi Jinping said: ““I have said many times that green mountains and clear water are as good as mountains of gold and silver. To protect the environment is to protect productivity and to improve the environment is to boost productivity. We will unwaveringly pursue sustainable development and stay committed to green, low-carbon and circular development and to China’s fundamental policy of conserving resources and protecting the environment. In promoting green development we also aim to address climate change and over capacity.”We will make China a beautiful country with a blue sky, green vegetation and clear rivers so that our people can enjoy their lives in a liveable environment with the ecological benefits created by economic development.”

According to Sup China: A forecast in 2017 said that China would meet its Paris commitment to have emissions peak by 2030 mainly by cancelling new coal-fired power plants and increasing the use of clean energy. China invested $78.3 billion in renewable energy in 2016 — far more than either Europe ($59.8 billion) or the U.S. ($46.4 billion). Elizabeth Economy, director for Asia studies at Foreign Policy Council and a leading scholar in the study of Chinese environmental politics, “whatever positive steps China is taking at home are not being replicated in its behavior abroad.” China’s position as the “world’s largest exporter of coal-fired power plant finance and technology” directly contradicts the spirit of the Paris Agreement, she says. The construction of over 100 coal-fired power plants is being sponsored by China in just the “Belt and Road” countries alone. [Source: Sup China, June 14, 2017]

U.S. President Donald Trump’s decision to withdraw from the Paris climate accord in 2017 raised China's status as a global environmental player and diplomatic power, and paved the way for Beijing achieve longer-term ambitions to upgrade its economy and dominate lucrative new clean energy industries. “"Just a short few years ago, China was the climate bad boy," said Li Shuo, senior climate change advisor with Greenpeace. "Geopolitical shifts often happen over a scale of decades, but I feel the world has changed over the past few hours." The Paris agreement was forged by the administration of U.S. President Barack Obama. Trump argued that the Paris agreement favored emerging economies such as China’s and India’s at the expense of U.S. workers. [Source: David Stanway and Henning Gloystein, Reuters, June 2, 2017]

After Joe Biden became U.S. president in 2021, he reinstated the U.S. in the Paris accord. After that the U.S. and China have agreed to fight climate change “with the seriousness and urgency that it demands” by stepping up efforts to reduce carbon emissions. “The agreement, which included few specific commitments, was announced after Biden’s climate envoy, John Kerry, visited China for three days [Source: New York Times, April 17, 2021]

Air Pollution in China Spurring Action on Global Warming

According to the Los Angeles Times: China's climate advocacy is primarily rooted in domestic priorities, especially cleaning up its noxious air pollution. — a miasmic haze that sweeps across huge swaths of the country at least every few weeks — proved to be a remarkable catalyst. The pollution is mainly driven by coal combustion, which is also a major producer of carbon dioxide, the main greenhouse gas. In 2013, China's smog problem hit a tipping point. That winter, Beijing's air was so filthy — grounding flights, packing respiratory wards to capacity — that citizens began complaining openly, forcing the government to respond. [Source: Jonathan Kaiman and Alexandra Zavis. Los Angeles Times, April 6, 2017]

Chris Buckley wrote in the New York Times, “The grimy haze blanketing Beijing and other Chinese cities comes from motor vehicles, factories, power plants and furnaces that also emit carbon dioxide. The widespread ire about air pollution has forced China’s leadership to vow firmer, faster measures for cleaner air that are likely to reduce carbon dioxide output, especially from coal, experts said. “The public concern about the air pollution has helped raise awareness about broader environmental problems,” said Jiang Kejun, a researcher at the Energy Research Institute, which advises the Chinese government. “This will be a big help in pushing China.” [Source: Chris Buckley, New York Times, August 31, 2013 :]

But domestic economic, energy and environmental worries are also forcing China’s leaders to consider policies that could limit greenhouse gases, analysts said. The leadership wants to reinvigorate the economy by reducing reliance on heavy industry that produces high amounts of pollution. “Air pollution was the perfect catalyst,” said Wai-Shin Chan, director of climate change strategy in Asia for HSBC Global Research in Hong Kong. “Air pollution is clearly linked to health, and the great thing is that everybody — that’s government officials and company executives alike — breathes the same air.” :\

“The magnitude of the issue is evident in every Chinese city. Factories and homes run on power from plants that overwhelmingly use coal; and in the winter, many heating boilers in the north also burn coal. More cars and trucks crowd the roads. The expanding cities consume cement, steel and chemicals — all industries that emit large amounts of carbon dioxide. :\

China's Track Record on Reducing Carbon Emissions

According to Associated Press: Authorities say they are shrinking carbon emissions per unit of economic output. The government reported a reduction of 3.8 percent in 2021, better than 2020 and down from a 5.1 percent cut in 2017. In 2021. total energy use increased 5.2 percent over 2020 after a revival of global demand for Chinese exports propelled a manufacturing boom, according to the National Bureau of Statistics. [Source: Joe McDonald, Associated Press, April 24, 2022]

Dr. Lin Jiabin, the deputy director of the department of social development research at the state council, told The Guardian China began making positive efforts to tackle global warming in the mid 2000s after the 16th National Congress of the Communist Party of China was held. “At that time, the pressure on China increased in the midst of rising international concern over the issue.” In 2007, the Energy Saving and Emission Reduction Leading Group and the Global Warming Countermeasures Leading Group were organized in the central government to comprehensively confront global warming, with Chinese premier Wen Jiabao as the head and representatives of each ministry and agency as members.”[Source: The Guardian, January 23, 2009]

In June 2007 China unveiled its first climate policy plan, promising to integrate climate change policy into its economic and energy policies and vowing to try reduce it reliance on coal, expand forests, adjust agriculture and develop alternative energies such as solar and wind to do its part in the battle against global warming. It has failed to commit itself however to any concrete numbers or goals and has said it would not sacrifice economic growth. The plan was unveiled two days before Chinese Prime Minister Hu Jintao attended a Group of Eight of Meeting in which global warming was high on the agenda.

At that time China said repeatedly that it is determined to reduce carbon emission and do what it could to tackle the global warming problem but it was reluctant to set concrete targets or provide numbers. In September 2009, Chinese President Hu Jintao promised to curb carbon emissions but failed to set any hard targets but the statement was significant in that in the past China had always rejected demands by rich nations to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Hu said that China would set targets to “cut carbon emissions per unit of GDP by a doable margin by 2020.” The result of this if achieved would be a reduction of emissions not in an absolute sense but on a percentage basis in relationship to it fast-growing economy. “China’s “energy intensity” has already begun to fall. China used 3.35 percent less energy to generate a dollar of GDP in 2009 than it did in 2008. China was praised for the large green component of the $586 billion fiscal stimulus package it announced in November 2008. According to the HSBC Climate Change Center of Excellence, investment in energy efficiency measures, renewable technology and other efforts to ameliorate the impact of climate change accounted for more than 30 percent of the package.

In November 2009, China announced a plan to reduce carbon dioxide emissions by 40 percent to 45 percent per unit of GDP by 2020 compared to 2005. In August 2009, Su Wei, China’s top climate change official, was quoted in the Financial Times as saying that China’s carbon emissions “would begin falling by 2050.” At that time the primary aim of the Communist government remained lifting their people out of poverty. Even so Beijing is increasingly realizing that it is in its own self interest to reduce carbon emissions for several reasons: 1) melting glaciers affects China’s water supply and rising sea levels affect its coastal areas; 2) it is good international PR to fight global warming; 3) energy efficiency and renewable energy not only reduce carbon emissions they also reduce China’s dependency on foreign energy sources and help clean the environment; and 4) there is money to be made in developing energy efficient and low carbon emitting technology that can purchased at home and exported abroad. In July 2010, the central government ordered cities to close inefficient factories by the following September. Even before that, in the previous three years, China had shut down more than a thousand older coal-fired power plants. [Source: Jonathan Watts, The Guardian, March 5, 2009; Keith Bradsher, New York Times, July 4, 2010]

Chris Buckley wrote in the New York Times in 2012: “Chinese policy advisers have developed proposals to control greenhouse gases in the nearer term, They include a carbon tax on fossil fuels, and beginning in 2016 setting annual guiding limits for carbon dioxide emissions from energy use. In part, China is responding to international pressure, as governments negotiate global agreements on climate change. The policy to reduce the carbon dioxide emitted in the production of each unit of economic activity by 40 to 45 percent by 2020 meant emissions grow along with China’s economy, but at a slower rate than if there were no improvements. Even with such efforts, China’s size and feverish growth have pushed its emissions well past those of the United States. By 2011, China’s carbon dioxide emissions from fossil fuels accounted for 28 percent of the global total, and the United States’ for 16 percent,according to the Global Carbon Project , a consortium of researchers. :\ [Source: Chris Buckley, New York Times, August 31, 2013 :]

Craig Simons, author In “The Devouring Dragon: How China’s Rise Threatens Our Natural World,” told the New York Times: “The most helpful step Beijing could take would be to adopt a cap on its greenhouse gas emissions or to impose a significant tax on carbon. Many experts now believe that the world will be able to rein in carbon emissions only if China and the United States, which together produce almost half of global anthropogenic emissions, commit to limits. Because China is relatively poor and it is still building much of its national infrastructure, such a commitment would be challenging.

See Energy, Coal, Alternative Energies

Methods of Reducing Carbon Emissions in China

Environmentalists give China some credit for trying to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. China has implemented new programs and tested new technologies to control global warming. It has made industry more energy efficient; designed new buildings and appliances that don’t waste energy; and planted forests that absorb greenhouse gases. Dirty old steel factories are being upgraded or relocated. Particularly dirty ones have been ordered to shut down even though they employ thousands of people. What is more, per capita energy consumption levels are still considerably lower than levels in the developed world, particularly the United States.

The ENN Group, is a private company in Langfang, with a shiny new research center, where 250 engineers and researchers are experimenting with carbon-dioxide-absorbing algae, checking different kinds of solar panels and testing methods gasify coal underground — all in the name of reducing emissions of greenhouse gases. China is also trying to use science to expand coal production while reducing carbon emissions. Ground zero for this effort is Ordos, a city in Inner Mongolia that is home to the world's biggest coal company and an industrial-scale experiment to turn coal into diesel that could create a major new source of greenhouse gases. At the same time, it hosts the planet's most efficient mine and one of China's biggest carbon capture and storage projects, which buries the gases blamed for global warming. [Source: Jonathan Watts, The Guardian, November 15, 2009]

To reduce smog, the low chimneys of small thermal power generators are being replaced by the towering smokestacks of more efficient “supercritical” plants. Although China is building one a new coal-fired plant each week, most of them are more efficient than similar facilities in the United States and Britain. They are also better equipped to remove sulphur dioxide and other noxious gases. But almost none of them remove carbon dioxide. The result is that local air pollution is finally easing in many places but emissions of greenhouse gases into the planet's atmosphere are increasing.

The cost of eliminating a ton of carbon dioxide in China can be as little as $1 a ton compared to as high as $200 a ton in Japan. This created an incentives for companies in Japan and Europe, which signed the Kyoto Protocol, to offset their rising emission by paying companies in China and the developing world to reduce their emissions for them. When CO2 credits were in vogue China was a world leader n selling carbon emission credits to developed countries. Most of its credits came from fire-reducing HFC23, a byproduct of making refrigerants.

Still there is a lot more China could do especially when one considers that progress made in some sectors is outweighed by carbon emissions from increases in consumption of coal and other forms of energy. China can make a lot of improvements just by making its energy infrastructure more efficient. The hope is that as China grows it will develop in such a way that it takes greenhouse gas emissions into consideration. It is much easier to combat carbon dioxide emissions this way than develop industry and try to reduce emissions later. There have been suggestions that China might be willing to commit to some kind of cap if it receives some technology transfer that will help it save energy

Seven Reasons China is a World Leader in Fighting Climate Change

Ramez Naam wrote in the Slate: “China may one day be the world’s leader in combating climate change. In almost every way you cut it, China is already taking a much more aggressive approach toward climate change than the United States is. This is important for two reasons. First, China is seeing the world’s fastest growth in energy consumption and in CO2 emissions. In the United States and Europe, by contrast, energy usage is nearly flat and CO2 emissions are down. So China’s policies exert a huge lever on future CO2 emissions. Second, one of the prime arguments against U.S. action on climate change has been that it doesn’t matter what the United States does if China isn’t on board. Well, China already is on board in a number of ways that the United States isn’t. Consider the following: [Source: Ramez Naam, Slate, May 8, 2013]

1) China is launching a cap-and-trade plan. In the United States, the Waxman-Markey cap-and-trade plan fizzled in the Senate in 2009. In China, meanwhile, authorities have moved forward with pilot cap-and-trade systems covering seven regions, including the manufacturing hub provinces of Guangdong and Hubei, as well as the cities of Beijing, Shanghai, Tianjin, Chongqing, and Shenzhen. The first of those cap-and-trade systems, in Shenzhen, will start operation June 17. By 2020, the Chinese government plans to link those regional systems into a national carbon market. Just last month, the governments of China and Australia announced their intent to link the two countries’ carbon markets into a regional one.

2) China is also launching a carbon tax. In March, the U.S. Senate unceremoniously voted down an amendment that would have opened the way to a carbon tax. Not so, China. Officials there have announced their intent to institute a tax on CO2 emissions, likely starting in 2015 or 2016.

3) China is investing more in renewable energy. Not satisfied with those future plans? Consider the here-and-now. In 2012, the United States spent $35 billion on renewable energy—actually down 37 percent from $56 billion in 2011. China, meanwhile, spent a whopping $65 billion on renewable energy in 2012, or 85 percent more than the United States did in the same year. Yes, China’s population is more than four times the United States’. But China’s economy is only half the size. As a fraction of its overall economy, China invested almost four times as much as the United States in renewable energy in 2012.

4) China dominates in solar production. China has taken a huge lead in the production of solar panels in particular. In 1995, the United States produced nearly 40 percent of the solar panels produced around the world, while China made less than 1 percent. Now Chinese companies produce more than half the solar panels manufactured worldwide, while the United States produces less than 10 percent. Critics have decried this as a case of China’s government using cheap loans and investments to bootstrap an industry. And that’s exactly what it is. Whatever the short-term fluctuations in the solar market may be, whether China is guilty or not of intentionally flooding the market, in the long run the demand for solar power is going to grow by orders of magnitude. Solar power is going to be absolutely essential to meeting growing energy demands while staving off climate change. Chinese banks and Chinese leaders know this, and they plan to be the world leader in that industry.

5) China is second only to Germany in solar deployment.China doesn’t just manufacture a lot of solar power equipment. In 2012, the only country in the world that installed more solar power for its own needs was Germany. The United States was No. 4, after Italy.

6) China loves wind more than coal, and more than we do. For all this investment in solar power, the energy source most commonly associated with China is coal—dirty, dirty coal, the most CO2-intensive of all the fossil fuels. And yes, China does burn almost as much coal as the rest of the world combined. But in 2012, China actually deployed more new wind power than new coal power. In fact, wind power growth was more than double that of coal power growth in China—26 terawatt-hours of new wind generation in 2012 versus only 12 terawatt-hours of added coal generation in the same year. And when ranked against other countries, China comes in at—you guessed it—No. 1 in terms of the total amount of wind generating capacity installed, about 76 gigawatts compared with the United States’ 60 gigawatts. And that’s after the best-ever year the United States had in deploying new wind power, spurred on by uncertainty as to whether the wind power production tax credit would be extended.

7) China’s leaders are not like America’s. There’s a preponderance of scientists and engineers among China’s rulers. New President Xi Jinping was trained as a chemical engineer. His predecessor, Hu Jintao, earned a degree in hydraulic engineering. His predecessor, Jiang Zemin, held a degree in electrical engineering. You can see this in their public statements. Last year, Xi Jinping said that “global climate change is deeply affecting human beings’ lives and development,” and called for China to develop a “national strategy for [dealing with] climate change.” Among China’s leadership, there simply is no debate about whether climate change is real. The Politburo, too, is stuffed with engineers and scientists. These are men (all men, sadly) who recognize that the world is facing a significant challenge. The conversation in China is not about whether to act against climate change. Rather, it’s about how to tackle climate change, while making room for more than 1 billion Chinese men and women to continue to enjoy the fruits of rapid economic growth.

Obstacles to Fighting Global Warming in China

Chris Buckley wrote in the New York Times, “There are, though, formidable obstacles facing proponents of rapidly cutting China’s emissions. Robust economic growth remains imperative for leaders, who fear that slowing growth and rising joblessness would imperil the Communist Party’s rule. China remains dependent on coal, the source of about 70 percent of the country’s energy. And officials and companies in China are likely to resist steps they fear could jeopardize their industrial investments. “They will not be happy to see that the investment in new capacity they made a few years ago may have to be scrapped,” said Wang Tao, an expert on climate change and energy issues at the Carnegie-Tsinghua Center for Global Policy in Beijing. “It really all depends on how quickly China can transform the current economic structure.” [Source: Chris Buckley, New York Times, August 31, 2013 :]

Some Chinese government experts have “said their country must not risk its prosperity on such a shift. Wang Zheng, a researcher at the Chinese Academy of Sciences, estimated that China’s emissions were likely to reach their peak by around 2030 at up to almost a fifth higher than Mr. Jiang wants. “If we aim for earlier, that may mean wrecking stable economic growth and triggering an economic crisis,” Mr. Wang said. Mr. Jiang said he would keep trying to persuade scientists and officials to back his proposal. Several years ago, some scoffed at his earlier, less ambitious idea for an emissions peak by 2030, which is now widely accepted. “I’ve been in constant communication with the government,” he said. “They’re listening, and at least they haven’t yet said no.” :\

Perhaps China’s biggest challenge in the fight to contain global warming is dealing with demands of its 1.4 billion consumers. Keith Bradsher wrote in the New York Times, “Aspiring to a more Western standard of living, in many cases with the government’s encouragement, China’s population, is clamoring for more and bigger cars, for electricity-dependent home appliances and for more creature comforts like air-conditioned shopping malls.”[Source: Keith Bradsher, New York Times, July 4, 2010]

“An older generation of low-wage migrant workers accepted hot dormitories and factories with barely a fan to keep them cool, one of many reasons Chinese emissions per person are still a third of American emissions per person. Besides higher pay, young Chinese are now demanding their own 100-square-foot studio apartments, with air-conditioning at home and in factories. Indeed, one of the demands by workers who went on strike in May at a Honda transmission factory in Foshan was that the air-conditioning thermostats be set lower.” Chinese regulations still mandate that the air-conditioning in most places be set no cooler than 79 degrees Fahrenheit in the summer. But upscale shopping malls have long been exempt from the thermostat controls and have maintained much cooler temperatures through the summers. Now, as the consumer economy takes root, those malls are proliferating in cities across China.”

Carbon Emissions Grow in China Even as Energy Efficiency Increases

Industry by industry, energy demand in China is increasing so fast that the broader efficiency targets are becoming harder to hit. According to a New York Times article: “Although China has passed the United States in the average efficiency of its coal-fired power plants, demand for electricity is so voracious that China last year built new coal-fired plants with a total capacity greater than all existing power plants in New York State.” [Source: Keith Bradsher, New York Times, July 4, 2010]

“While China has imposed lighting efficiency standards on new buildings and is drafting similar standards for household appliances, construction of apartment and office buildings proceeds at a frenzied pace. And rural sales of refrigerators, washing machines and other large household appliances more than doubled in the past year in response to government subsidies aimed at helping 700 million peasants afford modern amenities. Also as the economy becomes more reliant on domestic demand instead of exports, growth is shifting toward energy-hungry steel and cement production and away from light industries like toys and apparel.”

“Chinese cars get 40 percent better gas mileage on average than American cars because they tend to be much smaller and have weaker engines. And China is drafting regulations that would require cars within each size category to improve their mileage by 18 percent over the next five years. But China’s auto market soared 48 percent in 2009, surpassing the American market for the first time, and car sales are rising almost as rapidly again this year. One of the newest factors in China’s energy use has emerged beyond the planning purview of policy makers in Beijing, in the form of labor unrest at factories across the country.”

“Global climate discussions, in pinning hopes on China’s ability to vastly improve its efficient use of energy, have tended to cite International Energy Agency data showing that China uses twice as much energy per dollar of output as the United States and three times as much as the European Union. The implicit assumption is that China can greatly improve efficiency because it must still be relying mainly on wasteful, aging boilers and outmoded power plants. But David Fridley, a longtime specialist in China’s energy at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, said that the comparison to the United States and the European Union was misleading. “Manufacturing makes up three times as much of the Chinese economy as it does the American economy, and it is energy-intensive. If the United States had much more manufacturing,” Fridley said, “it would also use considerably more energy per dollar of output.”

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Last updated June 2022

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