The European Union (EU) and the United States were key actors in the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) negotiations that culminated in the adoption of a global climate agreement in Paris on December 12, 2015. Germany has been one of the most active EU member states on climate diplomacy. After a long and cumbersome process that was marked by some setbacks—most notably the failure to agree on a successor to the Kyoto Protocol at the 2009 UNFCCC Conference of the Parties (COP) in Copenhagen—the Paris Agreement can be considered a major achievement. Progress was slow with countries only reluctantly budging from their negotiation positions. In their own way and making good use of their specific structural properties, both the United States and the EU made major contributions to the process of reaching an agreement and bringing almost all countries globally on board.
In the absence of a consciously designed and explicit transatlantic strategy, the U.S. and the EU individual bilateral and multilateral coalition-building efforts complemented each other and could be characterized as an implicit division of labor: The United States did the heavy lifting to convince China and some other major emerging economies to make climate change mitigation commitments of their own and to agree to an inclusive agreement without a clear-cut bifurcation between developing and developed countries. The EU invested major efforts in building coalitions with developing countries and states that are most vulnerable to the effects of climate change. These coalitions called for the international climate agreement to set ambitious goals and also made an important contribution to breaking the categorical divide between developing and developed countries. Of course, the United States also engaged with developing and most vulnerable countries, and the EU also cooperated with China. Yet, when assessing their major contributions to accelerating and facilitating the process culminating in the Paris Agreement, the United States-China interaction and the EU’s engagement in the so-called High Ambition Coalition with least developed and most vulnerable countries stand out.
Both the EU and the United States majorly contributed to the efforts to include important constituencies and essential participants in the international climate agreement. They used their specific strengths and ideological resources to engage with those countries with which they expected to have a major influence in bringing the climate negotiations forward. This external engagement was of course also driven by domestic considerations. While the United States was probably the best actor to sway China’s position, it also needed China’s commitment for reasons of domestic politics, where the climate debate often revolves around concerns of international competitiveness. The EU has consistently advocated a more ambitious position—especially with regard to the agreement’s legally binding nature and level of commitment—which reflects the EU-internal structure of climate legislation that sets binding targets. In the pursuit of its position in this regard, the EU found support in least developed and most vulnerable countries.
The Paris Agreement constitutes a major milestone in international climate governance. For the first time, almost all countries globally committed to engaging in climate action. It is a departure from previous climate agreements, most notably because of its inclusiveness and its focus on establishing binding procedures rather than binding, quantified greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions reduction targets per country. The Paris Agreement is more inclusive than the Kyoto Protocol, which only set binding targets for developed countries. The United States never ratified and Canada quit the Kyoto Protocol. The protocol’s coverage of GHG emissions remained thus quite limited, which is why the inclusive approach of the Paris Agreement seems crucial.
The Paris Agreement constructs a framework and establishes processes for directing, concerting, and ratcheting up national policies and other actors’ activities. The procedure of submitting successively more ambitious, nationally determined contributions (NDCs) in a five-year cycle is binding. The precise content of the NDCs, however, is not prescribed. There is also no legal obligation to achieve the goals set by one’s NDC or a sanctioning mechanism for the case of non-fulfillment of one’s promises, which could be seen as a potential weakness. The agreement is thus a legally-binding framework of which many elements are not legally binding. The Paris Agreement relies on peer pressure and other soft enforcement mechanisms for ensuring compliance with the self-set NDC goals. It binds countries to a process, but leaves room for self-determination of the actual policies and level of ambition.
The Paris Agreement sets the collective goal of limiting the global temperature increase to “well below 2°C” while pursuing efforts to achieve no more than a 1.5°C global temperature increase. A second goal is the peaking of GHG emissions as soon as possible and achieving net zero emissions in the second half of the 21st century, which means that no GHG emissions will be added to the atmosphere. Potentially emitted GHGs need to be captured and absorbed in carbon sinks.
Achieving these goals requires tremendous and profound economic and behavioral transformations globally. While the basic framework of the international process and the collective goals have been established by the Paris Agreement, many details still need to be negotiated and agreed upon in the coming years. It also remains open to what extent and when the collective goals will be reached since the individual NDCs that have been submitted so far are estimated to lead to a global warming in the range of 2.7 to 3.5°C. Additional and swift action seems essential.
Achieving the adoption of the Paris Agreement was the result of a combination of factors. The U.S. and EU efforts were only parts of a bigger picture, and a much broader set of actors were involved and contributed to the success. Nonetheless, the United States and the EU were crucial players without whom the agreement would not look the way it does. For this reason, this essay focuses on the role of and interaction between the EU and the United States in the long diplomatic process that led to the Paris Agreement. Section two briefly conceptualizes diplomacy, negotiations, and leadership. Sections three, four, and five discuss the individual climate diplomacy efforts of the EU, Germany, and the United States. The transatlantic dimension is studied in section six, and section seven concludes with some reflections on future climate negotiations and diplomacy.
Diplomacy, Negotiations, and Leadership
Diplomacy is the outreach to other countries and actors with the aim to influence what is politically possible in negotiations and cooperation. Negotiations are processes to reconcile conflicting positions with the aim to reach an outcome that is agreeable to all parties (Jarju 2014; Mabey, Gallagher and Born 2013: 7). Diplomacy supports negotiations in two distinct ways: First, it involves the collection of information about and the assessment of other countries’ interests and positions but also their constraints, capacities, and perception of the issues. Second, it strives to influence other countries’ national priorities, interests, and positions so as to move their negotiating positions closer to one’s own position and to generate support for a specific negotiation output. Diplomacy thus aims at identifying and influencing the “zone of agreement” of specific negotiations (Underdal: 1983, Afionis: 2011).
Negotiations take place amongst dedicated negotiators while diplomacy can include a broader group of actors. Climate diplomacy spans beyond the realm of the UNFCCC with governments discussing climate change in a range of other forums as diverse as the G7, the Major Economies Forum, the UN Security Council, and the International Civil Aviation Organization. The linking of discussions and negotiations across venues and topics can be part of a diplomacy strategy.
Leadership is closely linked to diplomacy and negotiations. Actors who strive to drive negotiations toward a specific goal that differs from the status quo can engage in different types of leadership. They become successful leaders when they manage to attract followers and sway the negotiations in the direction of their goal. Three types of (climate) leadership are generally distinguished: Leadership through structural power is based on economic strength and derived from the position of the leader in the overall structure. Entrepreneurial leadership relates to bargaining and diplomatic outreach, while cognitive leadership describes the production and promotion of new ideas and solutions. (For a more detailed discussion, see: Andresen and Agrawala 2002; Parker and Karlsson 2010; Young 1991.)
Depending on a country’s characteristics, its leadership capacity can differ. Structural power is rather a prerogative of large economies and, in the case of climate negotiations, includes their share of global GHG emissions. A large emitter can derive power and influence from its structural position as one of the main contributors to climate change without whom an agreement would be meaningless or ineffective. Entrepreneurial leadership requires diplomatic and bargaining skills, and capacities such as the ability to collect information about other countries’ positions, a network of embassies and diplomats, and skilled negotiators.
Diplomacy tools are diverse and can include bilateral engagement and discussions, coalition building among a subgroup of actors, confidence and trust building among countries and actors, issue framing so as to make an issue more palatable for some actor groups, and issue linkage across different venues and topics.
Credibility is important for successfully conducting negotiations. Actions and promises have to be perceived as sincere by other negotiation parties. Goals need to be presented as a joint purpose rather than one party’s self-interest (Afionis 2011: 348). Climate diplomacy can generate trust and reduce uncertainty about another negotiation partner’s motives and positions. This essay focuses on the UNFCCC climate negotiations and the preparatory diplomacy and leadership conducted by the EU and the United States.
EU Climate Diplomacy
The EU has had climate leadership ambitions for a number of decades. In the 1990s and early 2000s, it focused on submissions to the UNFCCC negotiations themselves and pursued a strategy of unilateral leadership through ambitious domestic policy. It has since shifted its strategy toward a more comprehensive climate diplomacy that emphasizes coalition building, bilateral outreach, and mediation (Bäckstrand and Elgström 2013). One of its major achievements and contribution to the process that made the Paris Agreement possible was the EU’s strong engagement with developing and most vulnerable countries. It succeeded in forging an alliance with countries of equally high ambitions for the Paris Agreement, such that the adopted text includes an aspiring global temperature increase target and has broad support from developing and most vulnerable countries.
The EU is a special entity in the international climate and many other negotiations since it is a so-called regional integration organization rather than a nation state. It comprises twenty-eight member states, all of whom have their own diplomatic networks and domestic climate policies and interests. Climate policy-making is a shared competence between the member states and the EU with the most important parameters being agreed jointly at the EU level. For example, targets for GHG emission reduction, renewable energy shares, and energy efficiency improvement are set among the leaders of all member states and constitute EU-wide binding targets. A number of key policies such as the Emissions Trading System have been adopted at the level of the EU.
Given the large extent to which climate policy is made jointly at the EU level, the external representation in the UNFCCC negotiations is also conducted by the EU as an entity rather than by its member states individually. The Presidency of the Council of Ministers and the European Commission—mainly represented by the Directorate General for Climate Action (DG Climate Action)—together represent the EU in the negotiations. Climate diplomacy is conducted by the European External Action Service (EEAS), the European Commission, and the EU member states individually or jointly.
For climate diplomacy, the EU can potentially mobilize more embassies and diplomats and has a bigger team at international negotiations than any individual country since the EU capacity is the sum of all twenty-eight member states’ individual diplomatic networks and negotiation teams, plus the EU-level system of so-called Delegations in a large number of non-EU countries and the DG Climate Action’s international negotiations team. Yet, the EU is not as coherent an actor as a single country. In sheer numbers, it has a far greater capacity than individual nation states have, but the EU is also a very complex structure that sometimes has severe difficulties using its potential capacity.
The EU has had leadership ambition in the international climate negotiations for a long time and consistently has held ambitious positions in the different negotiation rounds. Yet, in the 1990s and 2000s it was criticized for spending more time on internal coordination and negotiations than engagement with external actors (van Schaik and Egenhofer 2003: 1).
In 2007, the European Council adopted the target to reduce its GHG emissions by twenty percent by 2020 and conditionally by thirty percent if other major emitters make comparable commitments. This was done in the run-up to the negotiations of a successor agreement to the first commitment period of the Kyoto Protocol, which was planned to be adopted at the Copenhagen COP in 2009 (Schunz 2012: 17-18). The EU’s strategy was to lead the way by adopting an ambitious domestic climate policy, but no one else was willing to follow (Afionis 2011: 351), which led to the realization that leading is not useful if no one is interested in following. The EU’s negotiation strategy has since shifted toward more coalition building, mediation, and bilateral cooperation (Bäckstrand and Elgström 2013).
Coalition building with developing and most vulnerable countries has been an important feature of the EU’s climate diplomacy in the run-up to the Paris COP. In particular, the so-called High Ambition Coalition and the Cartagena Dialogue for Progressive Action constituted the main outcomes of these efforts.
Least developed countries (LDCs) and small island developing states (SIDS) had pushed for an ambitious international climate agreement and a 1.5°C target already at the Cancun COP in 2010. Until the Paris COP, however, the 1.5°C target had not found much traction with developed countries (Obergassel et al. 2016: 14-15). Taking their positions seriously and incorporating the LDCs and SIDS into the process by making their voices heard contributed to the positive and encouraging spirit at the Paris meeting.
The Cartagena Dialogue for Progressive Action is an informal negotiating group that was created at the Copenhagen COP on the initiative of the United Kingdom and Australia. It comprises about thirty nations. The EU and some of its member states, including Germany, worked together with developed and developing countries in the pursuit of an ambitious, comprehensive, and legally binding regime in the UNFCCC (Oberthür 2016: 4). The dialogue played a role behind the scenes at the Cancun and Durban COPs and contributed to avoiding a divide between developed and developing countries in the negotiations.
At the Paris COP, the High Ambition Coalition played an important role. Initiated in spring 2015 by the Marshall Islands foreign minister Tony de Brum and in close interaction with and support by the EU, this coalition included a range of developed and developing countries that were united in their high ambition for the climate negotiations (Obergassel et al. 2016: 9). The core demands of the coalition included a temperature target of 1.5°C instead of 2°C and a legally binding agreement. The High Ambition Coalition gained traction during the Paris COP, when more and more other countries, including the United States, joined. Toward the end of the Paris meeting, it comprised more than 100 countries (Mathiesen and Harvey 2015) and proved to be instrumental in breaking the deadlock. When the EU convinced Brazil to join the High Ambition Coalition, the influential BASIC group—representing Brazil, South Africa, India and China—was broken open, which changed the negotiation dynamics.
While the course of events in Paris and the tremendous success of the High Ambition Coalition could not have been anticipated, this type of outreach was explicitly part of the EU’s climate diplomacy action plan. In their 2013 reflection paper “EU Climate Diplomacy for 2015 and Beyond,” the EEAS and the European Commission state that a challenge for the climate negotiations is the successful completion of the negotiating process “through intensive outreach activities (…), striving for an ambitious coalition and the necessary political momentum” (European External Action Service and European Commission 2013: 1).
The EU also cooperated with China and other emerging economies on a bilateral basis. With China, the EU maintains a regular dialogue mechanism at the ministerial, senior official and policy officer level. The 2015 EU-China Summit resulted in a joint statement in which both jurisdictions agreed to step up their cooperation on climate change. Yet, this engagement did not bear the same weight for the international climate negotiations as the United States-China announcements, which are further described in section five below.
With regard to international climate finance, which has been an important demand from developing countries in the course of the climate negotiations, the EU has shown some noteworthy commitment. It has decided to spend one-third of its development cooperation funding on climate-related activities. From 2010 to 2012, the EU and its member states provided 7.2 billion euros for priority areas of climate adaptation, REDD+ (Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation), mitigation, and technology cooperation (European Commission 2011: 5). The Commission established the Global Climate Change Alliance (GCCA), which provides policy and financial assistance in the areas of climate change to developing countries. The EU’s outreach and support to developing countries is thus a dominant feature of its external climate engagement.
Germany has been one of the key actors in EU climate diplomacy. It engaged in bilateral outreach such as the Brazil-German joint statement on climate change of August 20, 2015, which was signed by Chancellor Angela Merkel and President Dilma Rousseff. Such bilateral activities supported the EU efforts in a complementary manner.
Germany plays a key role in venues other than the UNFCCC, such as the G7. When Germany hosted and presided over the 2015 G7 meeting in Elmau, it pushed for a joint G7 statement that called for the goal of decarbonization of the global economy during this century. This commitment means the phasing out of fossil fuels by 2100 by seven major economies.
Germany also used its extensive network of embassies for climate outreach through interaction with other governments but also public diplomacy efforts in various countries. The German Corporation for International Cooperation (GIZ) is an active provider of climate-related development finance.
U.S. Climate Diplomacy
U.S. involvement in the international climate negotiations is marked by phases of leadership alternating with phases of abstention. With Barack Obama’s presidency, the United States re-emerged as an active and constructive party to the international climate negotiations after a phase of non-involvement under President George W. Bush. At the 2009 Copenhagen COP, President Obama took on leadership by forging a deal with a number of emerging economies—the so-called Copenhagen Accord—which initially was outside of the UNFCCC framework, only contained voluntary pledges, and maintained the bifurcation between developed and developing countries.
Starting in 2011, the United States became more actively involved in the UNFCCC negotiations and since 2013—when President Obama presented a comprehensive climate action plan—has ramped up its efforts on domestic climate policy and international climate diplomacy. One of the country’s major achievements and contributions to the process that made the Paris Agreement possible was its strong engagement with China. The United States succeeded in preparing a number of joint statements in which China committed to climate targets and announced domestic climate policy. Bringing China into the core of the process and China’s agreement to abandon the strict bifurcation between developed and developing countries was a watershed moment of the negotiation process.
For the United States two elements were important in the negotiations, namely two red lines that it was not willing to cross. The first relates to the definition of the concept of Common But Differentiated Responsibilities and Related Capabilities (CBDR-RC). The United States could not allow China and other emerging economies to explicitly have fewer responsibilities than itself. This competitiveness concern had already been part of the U.S. political rhetoric during the negotiations of the 1997 Kyoto Protocol and remained important for domestic politics.
The second key element of the U.S. position was the legal nature of the Paris Agreement. The U.S. government wanted to avoid at all costs the need for Senate ratification since the Republican Senate majority had made clear that it would not ratify an international treaty that would bind the United States to GHG emission reduction targets. For this reason, the United States meticulously pursued the drafting of an international climate agreement that introduced a binding procedure but no concrete mitigation or financing commitments.
The United States engaged in bilateral diplomacy and coalition building. Especially its outreach to China was essential to the negotiations leading to the adoption of the Paris Agreement. Undoubtedly, a U.S.-China agreement in November 2014 was a watershed moment that generated momentum for achieving the Paris Agreement (Obergassel et al. 2016: 7). In 2013, China still defended the clear-cut distinction between developed and developing countries as enshrined in the Kyoto Protocol and opposed attempts to re-categorize countries. In 2014, it softened its stance to insist on differentiation on the level of stringency of the commitments but no longer on a differentiation at the level of legal applicability of the Paris Agreement. This brought the U.S. and Chinese positions closer together so that an overlap of their respective zones of agreement emerged.
On November 12, 2014, President Obama and Chinese President Xi Jinping announced a climate agreement that stunned most climate observers. It was the result of about nine months of secret interaction and diplomacy between the two countries and constituted the first of a series of joint statements. U.S. climate envoy Todd Stern and Chinese lead climate negotiator Xie Zhenhua engaged in intense interaction. U.S.-China relations in general are not easy and it required presidential involvement by Barack Obama to initiate and support discussions between the two on a climate agreement. Personal meetings between Presidents Obama and Xi were important parts of the diplomatic outreach, which were carefully organized by White House climate counselor John Podesta and U.S. climate envoy Todd Stern (Goodell 2014).
The United States has become a central actor in the UNFCCC negotiations. This is partially grounded in its structural power as the largest economy and the second largest emitter of GHG emissions. It also succeeded in generating trust and credibility through its domestic climate policy. Especially in his second term, President Obama became increasingly active on climate policy through the adoption of Environmental Protection Agency (EPA)-level regulation. Before the Copenhagen COP, the United States Congress had tried to adopt a national climate law, which failed in the Senate. Obama had to travel to the climate negotiations in Denmark empty-handed. Later, leading up to the Paris COP, the situation had changed. The Obama administration had announced a number of EPA regulations, including new standards for new and existing power plants, new standards for passenger and commercial vehicles, and standards to reduce methane emissions. He also introduced the Clean Power Plan, which aims at reducing CO2 emissions from the power sector by thirty percent by 2030, compared to 2005 levels, and established individual reduction targets for each state. The United States could credibly claim to walk the talk of ambitious climate policy.
The United States also engages with developing countries and funds climate-related development cooperation projects through the Enhancing Capacity for Low Emission Development Strategies (EC-LEDS) and other programs. The EC-LEDS established partnerships with twenty-six middle-income countries ranging from Mexico to Indonesia. While this engagement made a contribution to engaging with developing countries on climate action, it did not result in the same mobilization and negotiation dynamics seen in the High Ambition Coalition (in which the EU was heavily involved). However, it did support a number of countries in their preparations for the Paris COP and climate action in general.
Transatlantic Division of Labor
As outlined above, both the United States and the EU engaged in different kinds of coalition building, both breaching the divide between developed and developing countries. The United States advanced the negotiation process by achieving a breakthrough in its engagement with China and other emerging economies. The EU drove the process through its engagement with least developed and most vulnerable countries. These two sets of activities are only part of a broader set of activities, but they can be considered as defining moments in the entire process.
U.S.-EU interaction in the climate negotiations that culminated in the adoption of the Paris Agreement can be characterized as information exchange and regular discussions. Their climate diplomacy efforts cannot be characterized as harmonized strategies. Both had distinct negotiation positions that in the course of the period from 2013 to 2015 converged on some points. The EU insisted on and emphasized the importance of a legally binding treaty, including binding mitigation commitments. This was unacceptable to the United States since legally binding GHG reduction commitments would most likely have required ratification by the Senate, which is an extremely unlikely scenario. As the negotiations progressed, the EU came to accept the legally binding nature of the process instead of the content of the national contributions.
The United States and the EU diverged in some of their positions but they also had some commonalities, which can be found in the need for transparency and solid measurement, reporting, and verification (MRV) provisions, the abolishment of the division between developed and developing countries into two distinct categories, and the commitment of all parties to joint goals while differentiating in the details. They emphasized different aspects but there was no great contradiction or sharp conflict.
In the past, EU-U.S. relations in the UNFCCC negotiations were not always harmonious. The negotiation of the Kyoto Protocol ended with the United States pushing through its preference for market-based mechanisms. The COP in The Hague that was dedicated to operationalizing the Kyoto Protocol’s flexible mechanism collapsed because of EU-U.S. differences and in 2001 President George W. Bush officially withdrew from the Kyoto Protocol, entirely abandoning the UNFCCC process (Schunz 2012: 15).
In the negotiations leading to the adoption of the Paris Agreement, EU and U.S. positions were not antagonistic, but also not entirely unified. Regardless of their positional differences, the EU and U.S. respective coalition building proved to be complimentary, with each of them engaging in the type of activity for which it was best positioned. Given their different characteristics, the EU and the United States could not have done exactly the same things. Both did what they could do best and used their comparative advantage in the international system and their existing relationships and network structures.
The United States had a big influence especially through its cooperation with China and due to the fact that a climate agreement without the United States would have excluded a large GHG emitter. The United States is a greater power in economic and climate terms than the EU but also was very committed to reaching an agreement. Its structural power combined with its commitment can explain its big footprint on the Paris Agreement. The EU and its member states played the role of leaders trying to ratchet up the level of ambition of the agreement. They consistently had more ambitious positions than the United States did. Since they were beyond the red line of the great powers United States and China, not all parts of their positions were necessarily enshrined in the text of the Paris Agreement, but they made a significant contribution by keeping up the level of ambition and pushing others as far as they possibly could go.
The EU played an important role in reaching out and building bridges to developing and most vulnerable countries that wanted to see ambitious targets and strong commitment by developed countries. The United States played the role of bringing other powerful actors on board, most notably China.
Both the EU and the United States have worked on their credibility by adopting domestic policies and making sure that they are perceived as sincere actors. They were without doubt driven by their domestic context. Obama had clear boundaries within which he needed to operate, and that determined key elements of his position. The EU has a particular way of making EU-internal policy and a long history of leadership rhetoric and ambitions. This was reflected in the priorities and proposals that comprised the EU’s position. A process of binding commitments at the EU level that then needs to be implemented at the member state level and a fair distribution of climate targets amongst EU member states are crucial elements of EU climate policy. The argument that the EU can be a laboratory for the international agreement occasionally comes up in EU discussions.
Overall, in the preparation of the Paris Agreement the transatlantic dimension of climate diplomacy was characterized by an implicit division of labor in which the United States and the EU each did what they could do best and for which they had the necessary traits, credibility, and skills.
The Future of Transatlantic Climate Diplomacy
We are not there yet! The goals set by the Paris Agreement remain to be achieved. Many challenges are still ahead and the negotiations continue. The transatlantic dimension of climate diplomacy can continue to play an important role in future negotiations and probably can become more central since on many aspects of the negotiations, EU and U.S. positions are not far from each other. The continuation of the transatlantic dialogue seems indispensable and bears potential for further expansion.
Two challenges are crucial in determining whether the Paris Agreement can lead to the success that many observers enthusiastically announced in wake of its adoption: First, the current NDCs will only lead to a temperature increase of 2.7°C at best. The ratcheting up of national efforts is essential. If the goal of well below 2°C is to be achieved, the NDCs quickly need to be made more ambitious. Second, the Paris Agreement only sets out the broad strokes of the procedures and requirements—the details still need to be negotiated. To enable the global stocktaking of national efforts and make the five-yearly review process a powerful tool, transparency and MRV are essential. The development of the transparency framework will thus be an important part of the negotiations in the coming years (Obergassel et al. 2016: 4). These are areas in which the United States and the EU have large commonalities.
To achieve the targets that the global community set for itself, the momentum of the negotiations needs to be maintained. Political drive and intense investment in climate diplomacy need to be maintained. While the United States and the EU have been key drivers of the process that delivered a success in Paris in 2015, they need to continue pursuing those strategies that have proven to be fruitful. Sincere engagement with the most vulnerable countries to climate change is essential and so is co-opting China and other major GHG emitters without whose economic transition global climate targets will not be achieved.
Dr. Katja Biedenkopf is a Visiting Fellow and DAAD/AICGS Research Fellow from February through July 2016. She is Assistant Professor at the University of Leuven, Belgium. Her research centers on climate and environmental policy.
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