ON TURNING GOOD NEWS INTO BAD

 

 

gun barrel close up

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

When it comes to energy policy the Financial Times seems to be suffering the editorial equivalent of a nervous breakdown. Looking back through some of its recent stories I was struck by a headline from a Pilita Clark story in early October. ‘Germany energy market a disaster, says EDF chief’. What, I wondered, made the views of a French nuclear industry chief on his increasingly non-nuclear German colleagues so interesting.

Clark is one of the better informed and more meticulous journalists covering the environment anywhere. I have never found any reason to doubt the accuracy of her reporting. She has been a careful and consistent commentator on climate change. She does not normally cover energy stories.

The opening sentence of this particular story reminded us, as the FT often does, that Merkel accelerated a phase out of nuclear energy in Germany after Fukushima. Actually, to be rather more accurate, what Merkel really did was to restore a long standing phase out she had recently abandoned under pressure from German utilities.

The rest of the story reported the views of Henri Proglio, the Chairman of EDF, a French nationalised industry, on the German energy market. This he called ‘a disaster’. The FT clearly thought this intervention to be noteworthy. It had to dig quite deep to get the story.

It turns out that Mr Proglio’s remark was provoked by a question about the state of the French business environment. This in turn had arisen because of a singularly dumb comment from the head of John Lewis about France being ‘finished’. Mr Proglio clearly thought that Germany energy industry was too.

But, he went on, the picture in France and Germany was mixed. There were, he said with unarguable lucidity, ‘some very good and some very bad examples’. And that, more or less, was that. Hardly a story of overwhelming importance to the FT’s readers.

But not quite. There was one other point. Mr Proglio’s remark was prompted by the problems of Eon and RWE. ‘One’, he said, ‘is more or less dead, the other is in a very difficult situation.’ As the article pointed out, they had experienced a 20% and 62% fall in profits respectively.

So far, so sad. But the real kicker in story was the explanation the companies offered. In both cases this turns out to be renewable energy. For RWE it has left many of its power stations unable to cover their operating costs, and for Eon it had caused a decline in the price of baseload power.

So here we have it. The head of the French nuclear electricity industry is complaining about renewables destroying the value of German nuclear owning utilities. It is not hard to imagine why. The same gun is pointing his way.

Dissing renewables is an FT trope. So deeply is it twisting their editorial judgement that every opportunity to be negative, including one as trivial as this, must be taken. If this story had any value at all it was to celebrate the creative destruction of capitalism as nimbler rivals exposed the shared frailty and rigidity of both private and publicly owned existing utilities. Instead, the FT placed itself firmly on the side of the status quo.

Just over a month later, Mr Proglio had been sacked, the French Government has announced a 33% cut in its dependence on nuclear power; Eon had decided to spin out its traditional, less profitable, businesses into a separate entity and Citi had published a report forecasting a 28% fall in electricity market share for the UK Big 6 by 2020.

 

 

Tom Burke

Brussels

December 2nd 2014

 

 

 

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OF NIGHTMARES AND PARROTS

 

This piece was first published in BusinessGreen

 

dead-parrot

 

 

Let me introduce you to the mysterious world of triads. This is not, however, an article about the exotic world of Hong Kong’s ill-famed criminal gangs. This is about the much more prosaic world of managing electricity bills.

Triads are the three half hour periods when electricity demand is at its highest in Britain. They occur in winter. Between November and February businesses are charged significantly more for their electricity during these 30 minute periods.

This is a perfectly sensible measure to encourage those who can to use less power when demand is highest. It is exactly what you would expect to happen in an efficient market obeying the laws of supply and demand.

Britain’s energy intensive industries are not stupid. They try to guess when the triads will occur and then reduce production for those half-hours to cut their costs. This is a perfectly sensible response by those businesses. They do it if the marginal production losses during those three half hours are less than the extra cost of the electricity.

This is a routine business operation to cut costs which has gone unnoticed for years. The arcane skill of guessing the triad has not warranted much attention from the media and its best practitioners have preserved their anonymity.

This era of quiet professionalism may now be over. That is, if a recent headline in the Financial Times is to be believed. “UK manufacturers warn of shutdowns amid energy measures” it bellowed. This sits the story squarely in the media’s running nightmare that Britain’s lights are about to go out. Triads, it seems, are now critical to the health of Britain’s economy.

So, what is the source of this dire threat? This turns out to be the National Grid which has launched a Demand Side Balancing Reserve (DSBR) scheme. This is one of a number of measures it is deploying to increase security of electricity supply.

These measures are necessary because of the uncertainties created by unplanned outages from ageing nuclear reactors, the closing of uneconomic gas fired generators, old coal-fired power stations coming offline for air pollution reasons and the growing proportion of wind and solar generation in the system. They underpin National Grid’s confidence that it will keep the lights on this winter, as it does every winter.

The DSBR scheme will invite companies to reduce their demand during peak winter evenings. Those companies that do so will be paid. So, why would anyone object to being paid reliably to do something they used to have to guess about? After all the invitation is open to exactly those companies whose production is already sufficiently flexible to play triad roulette.

Furthermore, triads have been becoming more difficult to predict anyway. Electricity demand has been falling for nearly a decade. Rising bills have stimulated more companies to get into this game. You would have thought that the predictability of a contract would have been preferable to the current guessing gamble.

Not so according to the energy intensive businesses. Npower, Sheffield Forgemasters, the EEF have all sucked their teeth and complained to the FT that this will be very bad – ‘ a very real concern’, ‘disrupting production’, ‘more….shutdowns’ they told the FT.

How so? This scheme simply adds a belt to the many braces the National Grid already employs to keep the lights on. Energy intensive industries are not being asked to do anything they are not already doing. It is their electricity suppliers not the companies themselves which are being invited to sign up to the scheme.

The ability this scheme gives to National Grid to reduce demand is good for the security of the system as a whole. This is a useful benefit to every other business and domestic consumer. All it means for the energy intensive industries is that it will be a little more difficult to guess exactly when the triads will occur.

Hardly surprising therefore that National Grid dismissed the complaints. As it pointed out, this is not a scheme they are likely to use very often. It would only represent a fraction of the amount of demand reduction provided by triad avoidance with which the companies already cope well.

So nothing to worry about in Tanya Pawley’s story with its alarming headline? Not quite. The story accidentally reveals two things that do matter: the penchant for Britain’s energy intensive industries to whinge at all times and declining editorial standards of the FT.

If a possible increase in the price of electricity on three half hours a few days a year is ‘a very real concern’ you have got lot more to worry about than guessing wrong on triads. If these industries really are balancing their viability on such a thin edge we would we better off thinking hard about how best to close them.

In reality, of course, they are not that fragile.

The FT has taken an ill-informed and increasingly hysterical stand against the effort to decarbonise the British economy. A frequent riff of the campaign has been that this threatens our energy security. Last winter and the winter before the FT joined the rest of the media in noisy warnings that the lights would go out. They didn’t.

So what is the point of running a dead parrot of a story about a measure that would actually help to keep the lights on? Ah, well that is because this is ‘an emergency measure’ which will ‘force’ businesses to ‘shut down’. The editorial intent is clear if unstated. These disruptive measures are needed because decarbonisation is damaging Britain’s energy security.

The only point of this parrot is to populate the FT’s nightmare that dealing with climate change is ruining the economy. It is time its editors woke up to the dangers of failing to deal with climate change so cogently provided by one of its own most distinguished columnists.

 

 

Tom Burke

November 26th 2014

London

 

 

 

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Tom Burke talks to Comment Visions about the costs and opportunities of climate change

 

Talking to Comment Visions about the opportunities and costs of climate change.

 

 

 

 

Two important things about businesses; first of all for the energy businesses, the high carbon businesses are starting to get increasingly nervous about governments actually being willing to do more as the cost of renewables come down, and the low-carbon businesses are seeing an expanding realm of opportunity. So I think those businesses are going to see a change of focus from worrying about what happens to the high carbon businesses, to looking at all the opportunities for the low-carbon businesses.

Up until now we’ve only really heard from what I think of as the climate makers; the fossil fuel industries and their allies, increasingly what’s becoming clear is that the rest of the business community is going to have to pay for a changing climate in terms of lost opportunities, increased costs and damage to their facilities. So I think over the next few years I think we are going to hear many more voices being expressed from businesses like tourism, agriculture and property who will pay for a changing climate.

 

 

 

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US and China emissions agreement – BBC World Service – 12 November 2014

 

 

BBC WORLD SERVICE

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Here is an interview I did recently for  the BBC World Service discussing why the emissions agreement between the US and China is so important.

 

“This is really important because the real problem with climate change is not so much technology or economics, it’s politics. It’s actually getting politicians to do what we know we can do. And I think that this is a pretty big signal, when you have both China and the US agreeing really to do a lot more than people have expected them to do. Will it be enough? I don’t think where they have got to today is going to be enough to really solve the problem, but it does take us a big step down the right road.”

 

“If you think of China as one of the biggest investors in one of the biggest periods of growth, what it is actually saying is after 2030 all the investment in energy in China will be low-carbon or carbon-neutral, and that is a pretty big statement for a country that is still developing. So what China has actually signalled is that there is no conflict between dealing with climate change and having rapid growth and development for poorer people.”

 

“There has always been this idea that somehow China is doing nothing, and you regularly hear that from the climate sceptics in this country, but the fact is that China’s has been doing a lot for a very long time.  What they haven’t ever done before is said when emissions will peak, and that of course means that they will now shift basically to renewables, energy efficiency and nuclear as a way of delivering all the energy they need for their people’s prosperity but without destroying the climate.”

 

 

You can listen to the whole discussion here

 

 

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If there is the will, there is a way – Sky News – 02 November 14

 

 

sky news logo

 

 

Here is an interview I did for Sky News discussing the draft IPCC ‘synthesis’ report, why this report is different, and what difference it could make.

 

“I think there are two things that are different about this report, first of all this report is not just for scientists, this was agreed line by line by government officials, so this is what the scientists and all the governments are saying is the nature of the problem. And secondly, when you read the report it’s all about what the impacts of climate change will be on human beings. So it’s not so much now about what will happen to polar bears or ice sheets or glaciers, it’s really about what it will do to agriculture, what it will do to forestry, and what it will do to the lives of people living in cities around the world, and that really does make it much more significant politically.”

 

“There’s no question that we have the technology and the engineering skills to do it, and also it’s now pretty clear that we won’t wreck our economy by doing it, but it will change the pattern of winners and losers, and that makes a big difference politically. So the real question is not so much whether there is a way, but whether there is the will to do what we know we can do”

 

Watch the full interview here

 

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THE FOSSIL FUEL PARADOX

 

This blog  was first published by BusinessGreen

 

carbon bubble march

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A debate over the real value of investment in fossil fuels has raged all summer. September’s climate summit in New York brought it into sharp focus. There, Anthony Hobley of the Carbon Tracker Initiative told the assembled global leaders that tackling climate change put a trillion dollars worth of fossil fuel investments at risk.

This debate has provoked the oil majors into an unprecedented public defence of their assets’ value led by Exxon and Shell. Stripped of its detail, their argument turns on whether or not you believe governments will meet their obligation under the climate treaty to keep the rise in global temperatures below 2°C.

If they do, there will indeed be a lot of stranded assets. If they do not then further investment in fossil fuels is safe. The consensus within the fossil industries is that governments will not only fail, they will not even try very hard. Hence their conviction that none of their assets will be stranded.

Who is right is anybody’s guess. Even the governments don’t know yet. Geopolitics and capex constraints could combine to drive oil prices dramatically up. Disruptive technologies could collapse the price of low carbon alternatives further. Either would prompt a recalculation of the political risks of climate change policy.

The fossil industries’ confidence is based on their modelling of the energy future. This foresees global energy demand growing about 50% by 2050 with fossil fuels meeting over 60% of that demand. The companies draw reassurance from the broad endorsement of their view by the International Energy Agency.

This soothing analysis overlooks two problems. The first is methodological. None of the models used by the companies or the IEA incorporate any impact from a changing climate on their growth assumptions. Growth goes up, demand goes up, production goes up and the temperature goes up. All is well.

Except that the current rise in temperature of less than 1°C is already dislocating economies. Further rises will dislocate them more as both the World Bank and two former US Treasury Secretaries have recently warned.

The growth to fuel the energy demand the fossil companies expect is driven by rising incomes in the aspiring urban populations of the emerging economies. But those are precisely the incomes that will be hardest hit by climate driven spikes in food and water prices and the costs of extreme weather events. The growth will disappear as the temperature rises.

The second is political. Governments are fickle. They blow with the wind. The fossil industries are not just on a collision course with governments committed to a 2°C world they are also on a collision course with all the businesses whose value will be damaged as the planet warms.

So far the latter have been silent in the climate debate. But that is beginning to change. Some industries are already feeling the pinch – wine and winter sports for instance. A significant proportion of the small businesses affected by floods never recover.

As temperature rise they will be joined by other, larger industries – property, tourism, forestry, agriculture. Growth for the big consumer brands, Unilever or Nestle, depends on precisely the rising urban incomes that will be hit soonest.

The value of the businesses for which a changing climate is a threat far exceeds the value of the fossil fuel industries. The business voice in the climate debate is currently asymmetric, dominated by the fossil fuel industries and their allies – the climate makers. It will become more balanced as the climate takers – the rest of the business community – finds a voice.

This will alter the political risk equation for governments. They constantly juggle competing urgencies. What is pressing today can be ignored tomorrow. The analytic and political foundations on which the fossil industries confidence is based may not be as robust as they think.

These industries face a paradox. They make high risk investments in large projects. Typically there is more than a decade between initial investment and first revenues. Then they must earn a return. This puts a premium on economic and political stability. But that is precisely what will be undermined as those investments create a world 2°C or more warmer.

In reality the transition to a low carbon economy is already well underway. The capital markets are looking ever more favourably on low carbon investments and are increasingly disappointed by the fossil industries’ returns on their $600 billion/year capex.

What matters now is whether this is an orderly or disorderly transition. If it is driven by events and climate policy failure it will be disorderly. The fossil industries will destroy value for their own and other businesses. For it to be an orderly transition governments will have to act with more ambition and consistency than hitherto. Above all, they will need to enshrine their commitment to building a carbon neutral global energy system by 2050 into next year’s big climate meeting in Paris.

 

 

Tom Burke

October 12th 2014

London

 

Tom Burke is Chairman of the environmental organisation E3G

 

 

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CCC’s response to Owen Paterson’s speech to the GWPF

 

The BBC and the right wing press have been making much of Owen Paterson’s anti-climate speech this week. It is a farrago of nonsense. The Climate Change Committee has produced an excellent briefing detailing why it is so wrong. It includes a number of important points that Adair Turner forgot to mention on the Today programme.

 

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The front page of the Sunday Telegraph this week (13.10.14) suggested that we should ‘rip up the Climate Change Act’. The Telegraph, Daily Mail and others have included a preview of arguments that former Environment Secretary Owen Paterson will put to the Global Warming Policy Foundation. In this note we examine the claims that were made and the solution proposed. We assess these against the evidence and against actions being taken by the Government. Our assessment strongly rejects the claims.

 

Read full document here

 

 

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STANDING OUR GROUND

 

This piece was first published by Friends Of The Earth here

 

white elephant foe nukes

 

 

On a very cold morning forty years ago I got into a bright red Mini outside the FoE offices in Poland Street. Together with John Price, an Australian physics PhD, I was about to set off on a nationwide tour of the FoE local groups. Our goal was to run a series of teach-ins and public meetings on nuclear power.

The first oil price hike had only recently taken place. There was much anxiety that the world was running out of oil. This prompted a lot of governments to begin massive, heavily subsidised programmes of nuclear power. ‘Limits to Growth’ had just been published and there were many environmentalists who thought nuclear might be the answer to the oil resources running out.

Our task was to explain to the public and the FoE local groups why this wasn’t so. Then, as now, we had four arguments. Nuclear was too expensive, it was not safe; it would lead to the proliferation of nuclear weapons and would leave behind unmanageable radioactive waste. In short, there were cheaper, cleaner and safer ways to meet our energy demand.

As events transpired, we were right then as FoE is now and, as later, it proved to be about Thorp. In 1979, Walt Paterson wrote a long article for the Journal of the Institute of Nuclear Engineering. It traced the history of FoE’s central role in igniting the public debate about nuclear power in the Britain from 1973 onwards. It documented the extensive evidence base that FoE produced to support its position.

Nowhere in that evidence base will you find any objection to nuclear power ‘in principle’. This particular campaign was an expression of the founding principles of FoE. One of those principles is that whatever our ethical motivation for a campaign, the policies we proposed should be based on solid evidence. Another, was to pick specific issues on which to campaign that focussed attention on wider issues.

Among the most successful of FoE’s early campaigns was the whale campaign. Much as FoE cared about whales, the point of the campaign was to dramatise the wider need to preserve all endangered species. If you couldn’t save the whale, what could you save? Similarly, the focus on nuclear power was not just on the choice of technology but on the wider issue of what kind of energy policy was best for the environment.

So, does it matter that a slipshod piece of journalism got FoE’s position wrong on the BBC? I think it does but not because whether FoE is arguing about safety or economics matters. It has, and hopefully will continue, to argue both. And when it is appropriate and fits the media’s fickle attention, I hope FoE will add the rest of the compelling suite of arguments about why nuclear power is a distraction.

Harrabin’s sloppiness with the truth matters for a far more strategic reason. FoE, along with the rest of the environmental community, is widely trusted by the public. Trusted far more than journalists or politicians. This trust has been built up by generations of FoE staff and activists over forty years. The source of that trust has been FoE’s commitment to basing its policy on sound evidence.

FoE is, in principle, committed to protecting the environment. It is also, in principle, committed to opposing anything which is in its judgment, damaging to the environment. But those judgments are based on the best evidence it can assemble. Those judgements, like any judgements, are subject to change as circumstances change. But the whole point of principles is that they do not change with circumstances.

To describe FoE’s opposition to nuclear as ‘in principle’ is to attack the basis on which public trust in FoE has been built. That is to suggest that there can never be any evidence that would change the judgement that nuclear power is bad for the environment. The public, quite rightly, does not trust anyone who believes they cannot make a mistake. Opposing nuclear power in principle would be to assert infallibility and would be deservedly distrusted.

Furthermore, the public understands principles. They are things you stick to even when the going gets tough. To change your principles as the winds of opinion change is to show moral cowardice. For Harrabin to accuse FoE of changing its principles is to further attack the basis on which FoE’s trust asset is built.

So Harrabin was wrong on two counts. FoE has never opposed nuclear, nor as far as I know, any other technology on principle. Nor has FoE ever changed the principles it does have to suit the headlines. As this century progresses the forces we have long opposed will work harder to weaken us. It will be ever more important to know what our principles really are and to protect them and the public trust that we built standing up for them from attack whether motivated by carelessness or malevolence.

 

Tom Burke

September 18th 2014

London

 

 

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Tackling climate change is more of an opportunity than a threat

 

 

our future our voice

 

 

Here are three pieces I have done this week for the BBC and Sky News. They are about Ban Ki Moon’s climate summit in New York. A key point that I make is that climate change is impacting on people’s lives right now. Another is that there are more opportunities than risks in acting ambitiously to tackle it.

 

BBC World Service 22nd September 2014

BBC WORLD SERVICE

 

 

 

 

“It’s now becoming increasingly clear that renewables are the place for investment to go. A world in which you are having to invest massive amounts of money simply to get more fossil fuels out is looking increasingly unattractive financially, and you’re seeing all the oil companies already in trouble with their capital expenditure. So what I think we are seeing is something that is both morally good but also very smart in business terms”

 

 

BBC News 22nd September 2014

BBC NEWS PIC

 

 

 

 

 

“We have seen what’s been happening to the oil industry  getting overextended, having real difficulty finding new investments that generate good return on their assets, they are all cutting back on their capital expenditure. So people are really beginning to see that investments in this sector are under stress. And then they are seeing events, and seeing the kind of demonstrations we saw all over the weekend, all over the world, beginning to push governments into taking more action of climate change. Well at that point, the future value, given that you have to wait a long time before you get your money back in the oil industry, that then begins to look a lot more risky, and I think that is what the Rockefellers are being shrewd about.”

 

 

Sky News 23rd September 14

SKY NEWS PIC

 

 

 

 

 

“The real problem here is to get people to realise that it’s not about ‘doom mongering’ there’s a much smarter, cleaner, more efficient world available which will also reduce the pressure on the climate. We have got to stop thinking about it as a binary situation, yes or no, good or bad, it’s more complicated than that, a bit like the situation in the middle east, but there is much more opportunity in that than there is threat.”

 

 

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‘IT’S THE ECONOMY STUPID’

 

 

Treasury

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

When the debate on the Fourth Carbon Budget began in Whitehall in 2012 the Treasury had a clear view. No. Meeting its requirements would be too damaging to Britain’s economy. How did they know this? Their model of the economy told them so.

The Fourth Carbon Budget covers the period from 2023 to 2027. The Treasury’s model told them that agreeing this Budget would knock 1% off GDP in 2027.  The Treasury cannot tell you confidently what Britain’s GDP was last year. They are even less certain about what it is going to be next year. This makes believing you know what it will be in 15 years time pretty heroic.

In the event, the Prime Minister and the Foreign Secretary combined to over rule the Chancellor and after some huffing and puffing and a bit of delay the Fourth Carbon Budget has been adopted. You should not imagine, however, that this is the end of it. The Treasury will take advantage of every little downward ripple in the economy or scare about energy security to try to re-open the question such is its confidence in its model.

WWF also has a model. To be more precise, Cambridge Econometrics has a model. A rather well regarded one as it happens. WWF asked them to see what meeting the first four carbon budgets would do to Britain’s economy. They came to a rather different view. If we did so we would be better off not worse off.

Their results, just published, show that If we succeed in delivering the Fourth Carbon Budget then, by 2030, Britain’s GDP will be 1.1% greater than it would otherwise have been. Families will be £565 a year better off. There will be 190,000 additional jobs. The Treasury’s tax take will go up by £5.7 billion a year. We will use 30% less oil and 55% less gas not only hugely improving our energy security but also knocking £8.5 billion off our balance of payments deficit.

With benefits like this you would think that the Treasury would be falling over itself to accelerate the decarbonisation of the economy. Instead it is throwing up obstacles at every turn. Some of this is clearly ideological. The green has been washed off the Conservative Party by the rise of UKIP. But more of it is simply they really believe they are right.

We base a lot of really important political and economic decisions on the basis of our model of the economy. So how is it possible that two different groups of experienced modellers, modelling the same economy, can come to such dramatically different answers to the same question?

And even more importantly, which one should we believe?

Models of the economy are fickle beasts. The problem is that different modelling groups use different equations to describe the same economy. Furthermore, modelling outputs are hugely dependent on the choice of inputs. Change an assumption here, import some disputed data there, and pretty soon you get different answers to the same question.

This greatly undermines the utility of economic modelling in public policy decisions. Different interests shop around for models, assumptions and data sets that they hope will give them the answers they want. Politicians simply use them as arsenals to be raided  for ammunition to defend positions they have already adopted.

Different climate models, for all their uncertainties, offer a far more consistent  description of the real world than is offered by different economic models. This is a result of the intensive and transparent effort managed by the IPCC to provide useful knowledge to inform policy making. It is long past time that economists subject their modelling to a similar transparent, global process.

So the honest answer to the question of who is right, WWF or the Treasury, is I don’t know. I do know who I would prefer to be right and I do know that it matters. If the Treasury is wrong we will have taken a pass on a load of immediate benefits and put the stability of the climate at risk. If WWF is wrong we will have delayed increasing our wealth by a few months.

However, we would all be better off if we stopped guessing.  The Treasury and the WWF should sit down together and work through their differences publicly. They should do this on-line so that we can all follow along. In the 21st century there is no excuse at all for such a fundamental analysis to go on behind closed doors whether they are green or black.

 

Tom Burke

September 9th 2014

London

 

 

 

 

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