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US Carbon Emissions Hit 20-Year Low 245

Posted by Soulskill
from the burn-some-tires-to-celebrate dept.
Freddybear writes "A recent report from the U.S. Energy Information Agency says that U.S. carbon emissions are the lowest they have been in 20 years, and attributes the decline to the increasing use of cheap natural gas obtained from fracking wells. Michael Mann, director of the Earth System Science Center at Penn State University, said the shift away from coal is reason for 'cautious optimism' about potential ways to deal with climate change. He said it demonstrates that 'ultimately people follow their wallets' on global warming. 'There's a very clear lesson here. What it shows is that if you make a cleaner energy source cheaper, you will displace dirtier sources,' said Roger Pielke Jr., a climate expert at the University of Colorado."
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US Carbon Emissions Hit 20-Year Low

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  • It just moved (Score:5, Insightful)

    by Anonymous Coward on Saturday August 18, 2012 @03:07PM (#41038317)

    About 1/3 of carbon emissions comes from manufacturing, and most manufacturing is now done in asia.

    • by fragMasterFlash (989911) on Saturday August 18, 2012 @03:20PM (#41038431)

      About 1/3 of carbon emissions comes from manufacturing, and most manufacturing is now done in asia.

      And you don't think the Asians will seize upon the opportunity save money by adopting fracking techniques themselves? The west may be ahead of the curve with regard to petrochemical energy production but I really don't see any nation leaving money on the table.

      • Re:It just moved (Score:3, Insightful)

        by AK Marc (707885) on Saturday August 18, 2012 @04:30PM (#41038961)
        Nah, they build Three Gorges and such. The US is about where London was when everything was covered in soot from coal stoves everywhere, while China is creating work projects like the US only did for a short period, and have been bashed ever since by "capitalists", though the results of those projects still stand and provide failure. Our modern bailout was billions for billionaires. The New Deal was millions for the unemployed (leaving behind thousands of completed projects still in use today). Apparently the conservatives prefer the former.
      • by Pranadevil2k (687232) on Saturday August 18, 2012 @04:36PM (#41039001)

        Heard a story about Chinese attempts to begin fracking recently. The government in China is being uncharacteristically cautious due to environmental concerns. At least, that's what they are saying. I think they just don't want to have to pay us to do it for them.

      • by the eric conspiracy (20178) on Saturday August 18, 2012 @05:27PM (#41039505)

        China has a butt load of shale gas and in rapidly acquiring the technology to exploit it.

        It will be very interesting to see how this plays out.

  • by Trepidity (597) <delirium-slashdo ... g ['kis' in gap]> on Saturday August 18, 2012 @03:07PM (#41038325)

    "There's a very clear lesson here. What it shows is that if you make a cleaner energy source cheaper, you will displace dirtier sources"

    Sure, that's what everyone's been saying. The disagreement is over how to get there. Should we offer insurance guarantees for nuclear power plants? Should we mandate feed-in tariffs for household solar? Should we loosen restrictions on fracking? Should we increase science funding for alternative energy R&D? Should we institute a carbon tax?

    • by BlueStrat (756137) on Saturday August 18, 2012 @04:23PM (#41038911)

      "There's a very clear lesson here. What it shows is that if you make a cleaner energy source cheaper, you will displace dirtier sources"

      Sure, that's what everyone's been saying. The disagreement is over how to get there. Should we offer insurance guarantees for nuclear power plants? Should we mandate feed-in tariffs for household solar? Should we loosen restrictions on fracking? Should we increase science funding for alternative energy R&D? Should we institute a carbon tax?

      So far, the strategy has been to cause all energy costs except those from "green" energy sources to, as Obama is famously quoted as saying; "necessarily skyrocket".

      That's where I have a problem. Making "green" energy cheaper and more practical is a win and something I'd applaud, trying to force it by instead making everything else too expensive is stupid and hurts people, especially the poor, and the economy in general.

      Strat

    • by rastoboy29 (807168) on Saturday August 18, 2012 @05:00PM (#41039189) Homepage
      Well put.  And the answer is, "yes". :-)
    • by SomeKDEUser (1243392) on Saturday August 18, 2012 @05:20PM (#41039443)

      Yes to all! But for the fracking, heavy monitoring would be good, too. The point being that gas is bad, fracking dirty, but all in all a much better choice than coal.

      But nuclear plants? Yes: it is the only carbon-free large-scale dense energy producing plant you can deploy anywhere. Feed-in tariffs for solar? Yes, you want as much solar as you can, because that forces the upgrading of the grid, and improves resilience. It is clean, too. Science funding? How can there be a debate. Is there any case of science funding which is a bad idea?

      I don't understand how there is a disagreement: all of theses are possible, they don't contradict each other, and could be done simultaneously.

  • by Anonymous Coward on Saturday August 18, 2012 @03:09PM (#41038341)

    Note how the graph says "Carbon dioxide released into the atmosphere in the U.S. from burning coal has fallen to its lowest level in 20 years".
    Is the data truly valid for *ALL* emissions, or as the graph suggests, just the ones from burning coal?

  • by parallel_prankster (1455313) on Saturday August 18, 2012 @03:10PM (#41038351)
    Now instead of burning coal we are using shitty methods to create natural gas that will pollute our waters.
  • by MyLongNickName (822545) on Saturday August 18, 2012 @03:14PM (#41038385) Journal

    So, this means the US almost hit the targets of the Kyoto Protocol. Interesting.

  • by Ichijo (607641) on Saturday August 18, 2012 @03:14PM (#41038399) Homepage Journal

    What it shows is that if you make a cleaner energy source cheaper, you will displace dirtier sources

    Or you could simply fix the original market failure [wikipedia.org] by adding the cost of emissions (a negative externality [wikipedia.org]) into the price of energy. To prevent this from burdening the poor, return an equal share of the revenue to everyone.

    • by SuperKendall (25149) on Saturday August 18, 2012 @04:19PM (#41038879)

      Or you could simply fix the original market failure by adding the cost of emissions (a negative externality) into the price of energy.

      It's bizarre to claim you can "add the cost of emissions" to a product. How would you honestly come by such a figure, when there are myriad sources that can cause health issues (including people who smoke!)?

      Would you equally burden supposed "green" sources of energy with the same costs, from the production of pollution in China when producing components?

      The better and more direct approach is to limit emissions at a source rather than playing a wild guessing game that in the end amounts to "we get to charge you whatever the hell we like because we don't like you",

      But we already heavily regulate power plant emissions. Further controls are just not going to give us much benefit, and skyrocket the cost of energy for everyone - hurting the poor the most since the need for shelter comes almost before even food...

      • by moonbender (547943) <moonbender@NospaM.gmail.com> on Saturday August 18, 2012 @04:42PM (#41039029)

        How would you honestly come by such a figure, when there are myriad sources that can cause health issues (including people who smoke!)?

        Well, we're not talking about any pollutant here, just greenhouse gases, and mostly CO2 when we're talking about energy.

        I agree that it's not straightforward to establish a cost figure. So I guess one way to do it is set a goal of total emissions, run a few models to establish a tax amount that'd get you close according to those models and then run it in the real world and adjust in both directions appropriately. I guess you'd ease society into it by lowballing the tax and gradually increasing it until it you get to your intended goal.

        I wouldn't want immediately toxic emissions to be handled in the same way because I don't want an individual plant to emit those at will and only subject to financial limits. But CO2 seems more like a finite resource than a toxic emissions.

        • by SuperKendall (25149) on Saturday August 18, 2012 @05:13PM (#41039341)

          But CO2 seems more like a finite resource than a toxic emissions.

          Why? CO2 is the ONLY emission that the biosphere of the entire planet is built around consuming.

          CO2 is not pollution, in any sense of the word.

          Rather than chasing after black unicorns based on the uncertain idea that possibly the earth MIGHT warm enough to cause any issues at all, we should address real pollution that effects real people living now.

          That is the biggest crime in my book, people are focused on CO2 so much they are missing real pollution much closer at hand.

          • Obviously you still don't know anything about CO2, polution, and its consequences. Why do you think your opinion is a qualified then?

          • by Guppy (12314) on Saturday August 18, 2012 @09:16PM (#41041495)

            Why? CO2 is the ONLY emission that the biosphere of the entire planet is built around consuming.

            I beg to differ. Fixed nitrogen (mostly NOx) is another such emission, consumed by the biosphere whether in vapor or dissolved forms, from combustion by-products, sewage, or fertilizer run-off (especially fertilizer). So are Phosphates, found in detergents, fertilizer, and sewage (and of all major nutrients, possibly the most highly bio-concentrated in terms of the ratio between ambient environment and living organism). Unfortunately, while artificial applications of these nutrients are a boon to agriculture, their haphazard disposal results in eutrophication of freshwater bodies, and dead zones and red tides along coasts. As with all complex systems, the details are important.

            In terms of CO2, if we were to assume all other factors remain the same (distribution of temperature and precipitation), we'd likely see some benefit to crops which utilize C3 photosynthesis AND are at least sometimes limited by CO2 uptake vs other nutrients -- I suspect rice, cassava, and potatoes would fall into this category, but not sure about soy and most fruits and vegetables (they're also C3 plants, but not sure how CO2-limited they are). C4-based plants and crops (wheat, corn) will likely show little benefit, being capable of high-intensity photosynthesis in the presence of low CO2 concentration.

            The distribution of other limiting factors is the key. I suspect over-all biological production (on land) will rise, but the benefits will vary. For instance, swaths of Canada and Russia will benefit from a longer growing season; Saharan Africa may become greener as well due to more precipitation, while the mid and south-west US could experience reduced biological productivity. But these details of precipitation changes are one of those things associated with complex models (that critics like to deride) and lots of potential error.

            Oceanic productivity will also be affected. CO2 could be a limiting factor in niche cases (sea-grass beds, maybe), but in broad swaths of the ocean, other factors predominate (nitrogen, phosphorous, iron, dissolved O2). Acidification is an interesting problem -- you don't need as complex of a model to determine the degree, it's a much more straightforward function. Organisms utilizing carbonate skeletons (and those that eat them) will suffer, while those using siliceous or organic frameworks may benefit from reduced competition. Likewise, lower O2 solubility and changes in inter-strata mixing will benefit some organisms (jellyfish) while penalizing others (possibly commercial fish species).

            Personally, I think reducing CO2 production through laws is a fool's game, when enforcement is divided among multiple sovereign players, some who stand to gain an economic advantage by cheating. But I have a beef with climate denialists anyway -- they interfere with our ability to plan and invest in the technology and infrastructure required to adapt to climate changes.

      • by buybuydandavis (644487) on Saturday August 18, 2012 @04:43PM (#41039031)

        Or you could simply fix the original market failure by adding the cost of emissions (a negative externality) into the price of energy.

        It's bizarre to claim you can "add the cost of emissions" to a product. How would you honestly come by such a figure, when there are myriad sources that can cause health issues (including people who smoke!)?

        The fact that you can't price perfectly (particularly since there is no market here) doesn't mean you can't price at all. Right now, we price CO2 emissions at 0. For those who agree on the basic premise that CO2 emissions are a problem, 0 is obviously too low a price.

        If you agree that CO2 is a problem, pricing CO2 emissions is the right answer.

        • by Wrath0fb0b (302444) on Saturday August 18, 2012 @05:47PM (#41039651)

          If you agree that CO2 is a problem, pricing CO2 emissions is the right answer.

          Agree to the premise, disagree to the conclusion unless you add a second premise that we have the power to price emissions uniformly across jurisdictions, or at least the ability to prevent substitution of emissions from one jurisdiction to the next.

          If you increase the cost of emissions only in the US, the rational thing for emitters to do will be to substitute emissions somewhere else. A lot of steel gets made in China (with no pollution controls to speak of) and shipped to Europe (ironically, in dirty diesel powered freighters) because CO2 targets (and hence costs) vary across borders.

          Washington State is planning a giant terminal so that coal can be shipped by train to the Pacific, loaded in a freighter, hauled to China and then burned, again with no scrubbers or controls. Is that really better for the environment than burning it in Montana where we can save absurd transit costs and the EPA can regulate at least somewhat?

          I want to do something about AGW, but the economics of it strongly suggest to me that taxing emissions will not work without some (impossible to imagine) international power that can coerce (yes, coerce) nations to adopt them uniformly (leaving aside that many developing nations do not believe they should cut CO2 uniformly to the west anyway). Hence, I've pretty much put all my stock in active geo-engineering technology that obviates the need for coercive global implementation.

          • by zenyu (248067) on Saturday August 18, 2012 @06:28PM (#41040047)

            If you agree that CO2 is a problem, pricing CO2 emissions is the right answer.

            Agree to the premise, disagree to the conclusion unless you add a second premise that we have the power to price emissions uniformly across jurisdictions, or at least the ability to prevent substitution of emissions from one jurisdiction to the next.

            If you increase the cost of emissions only in the US, the rational thing for emitters to do will be to substitute emissions somewhere else. A lot of steel gets made in China (with no pollution controls to speak of) and shipped to Europe (ironically, in dirty diesel powered freighters) because CO2 targets (and hence costs) vary across borders.

            You can deal with this by simply applying a tarriff on products from countries that don't implement reasonable carbon controls. For a large power to pass WTO review you have to base this tarriff on an estimate of the amount of polution caused by producing the product in the exporting country. But the money raised from the tarriff would more than pay for the cost of estimating the amount of polution being generated in the exporting country. And in reality if a major trade block like NAFTA or the EU implemented such tarriffs others would quickly implement their own carbon dioxide controls. As long as the carbon dioxide emissions are being factored into the price, the exporting country would rather not have that done by the importing country collecting tarriffs.

            I don't think that a carbon tax should be the only acceptable way to avoid the tarriff. If the exporter is lowering their emissions faster than the importing country through some other scheme then it would be unfair to apply the tarriff, be that through subsidy of alternate power sources or harnessing the power of the flying spagetti monster. But practically all economists agree that a carbon tax is the cheapest way to address the problem.

            The truth is that if the US or Europe wanted to get real about CO2 they could. Maybe some smaller countries acting alone couldn't do this because they would be smaked down by the WTO, but they could try this and if enough small countries did this that would work too.

          • by buybuydandavis (644487) on Saturday August 18, 2012 @06:53PM (#41040313)

            There's coercion, and there's coercion.

            Most international treaties have countries going along with the program without a central global power coercing their submission. I don't think it's unrealistic that the main producers of CO2 can get on board for a treaty "pledging" to locally tax CO2 emissions.

            Are CO2 costs really be the main cost driver between European Steel and Chinese steel now? I'd doubt it. And I think it will be harder to get the US on board than China.

            Geoengineering? I'd rather we spent more money on fundamental energy R&D. That way we avoid the CO2 problems and get cheaper energy.

  • by cdrguru (88047) on Saturday August 18, 2012 @03:32PM (#41038511) Homepage

    We are running on overbuilt capacity from the 1960s. After that it became very, very expensive to build a large power plant - with most of the new costs being public protests and public comment sessions that turned into more and more evironmental impact studies. Often the result was the project was abandoned.

    In Arizona and Illinois (both places I have lived) the solution was simple: build "peaker" plants that run on natural gas and build them up over time from 200MW to more like 1000MW over time. This still results in a lot of protest activity but governing bodies are far more likely to ignore protests when the plant has been safely and cleanly operating for five years or so when it comes time to expand.

    The problem is that this is just a delaying tactic that will not solve the problem in the long run. Most parts of the country could use another 2000MW of capacity right now. Certainly if the economy recovers there will be considerable need for more and more electric power which today simply isn't available.

    It is just barely possible today to build a data center that is independent of the grid but the costs for the battery storage are huge. Solar PV generation is constantly being touted as a solution, but the only way it is a real solution would be to have it on a lot of homes and other buildings - a lot meaning probably over 50% of them. Unfortunately, this doesn't address the grid problems at 5-9 PM when everyone gets home, turns down the air conditioner temperature and turns on the microwave and the washing machine. To fix that we are going to need capacity that doesn't depend on the sun and today's grid-tied PV systems do not address that at all.

    One way out of the coming capacity crisis would be to have a big switch at the power company office: Day (offices) and Night (homes). This is literally what we might be facing soon. The problem is that we could easily have this kind of capacity problem in five years. It takes five years to build a new coal plant without any public opposition - and there would be plenty no matter where it was going to be built. It takes more like ten years to build a nuclear plant and we almost certainly do not have ten years before really running into a big capacity problem. We also need maybe 20-30 new plants coming on line in five years and we haven't even started building them.

    The power companies really don't care. They will not be the enemy when you find your refrigerator doesn't run during the day and there is a new box that shuts off your house power whenever the capacity is needed. You can bet their PR departments and outside agencies will be working overtime to make sure someone else gets the blame.

    But hey, if we don't build any new plants you can bet everyone will be shouting about how our CO2 emissions are down.

    • by AK Marc (707885) on Saturday August 18, 2012 @04:43PM (#41039037)
      The solution is distributed solar. Solar pays back in under 5 years now with a lifetime of 20+. The only problem with solar is that the energy companies (almost all privatized now) see solar as a threat, so they continue to push the "it just doesn't work" press releases. Despite the fact they are all lies, people still believe, so long as it lines up with their personal philosophies.

      Grid tied solar on homes would solve the power issue. Buy the dumped panels from China for the initial installation, and ramp up domestic production for replacement parts (as 20+ year life is good, but still means you need to replace about 5% per year forever). Distributed solar will take care of almost all our problems. We may end up with the (good) problem of more peak generation than demand, in which case we'd need to invest in some sufficient storage (China uses hydro storage, and it's quite effective - yes, I've been to Tien Shi and seen the production facility). Enough of that stable enough, and we could decrease baseline production.
      • by bussdriver (620565) on Saturday August 18, 2012 @05:39PM (#41039593)

        Parent is correct. Distributed power is a THREAT to centralized power and that is one reason there has been zero interest in technologies that are disruptive-- it is like expecting Microsoft to support Linux.

        If every house was partially covered in solar panels we would have a totally different situation that we do today. We wouldn't need wind or nuclear. There would be a demand for power STORAGE so instead of a nuclear plant you would have probably also centralized big corporations which sucked up your cheap solar power and sold it back to you at night. Advances in battery tech and investment in conversion/storage would be much much higher resulting in many side benefits (because research often produces discoveries are were not the goal of the research. Just look how many things come out from "worthless" biological research or space exploration.)

  • by Grayhand (2610049) on Saturday August 18, 2012 @03:59PM (#41038721)
    I keep hearing from conservatives that we can't do anything about climate change or reducing CO2. Natural gas has long been proposed as superior to oil because of releasing far less CO2. Fracking is dirty but we were producing plenty of natural gas before fracking. Fracking simply caused a glut and increased profits. Other factors like the reduction in driving mimics more efficient cars so we don't have to stop driving to make a difference. I just read we could offset all the cars just by grass feeding cows. Less corn is needed saving oil used in it's production, less corn means less gassy cows and allowing them to free range breaks down the waste more naturally releasing less methane and CO2. Also the soil becomes more biologically active allowing it to store more carbon as well as restoring the soil itself for farming. There are claims even, and not from left wing fanatics, that by field raising all our animals and going back to organic farming we could offset all our CO2 released. The point is factory farming is not sustainable and in some ways it's already starting to collapse. Downer cattle and Mad Cow are some of the many symptoms of weakness in the system. With farming we get the Gulf of Mexico dead zone as well as listeria outbreaks are a direct result of farm waste getting into our rivers. All of it together suggests the system is fixable without everyone driving electric cars and living like hyppies. Also organic farming is a cute term but hyppies didn't invent it it's how we produced food for the first 12,000 years. Modern farming has only been around for the last 100 years and has largely been a disaster.
    • by SuperKendall (25149) on Saturday August 18, 2012 @04:26PM (#41038939)

      I keep hearing from conservatives that we can't do anything about climate change or reducing CO2.

      That is what you heard.

      That's not what they said.

      Conservatives have long claimed there is no need to spend extra money to reduce CO2. They said there would be no benefit in ham-stringing first world countries in many ways to reduce a gas that may not even be causing a problem.

      And as it turns out, they were correct. If we had adopted Kyoto the U.S. would have a far worse economy than we have today, with many additional regulations imposed on businesses - when it turns out those additional regulations were never even needed.

      Over time alternative energy WILL naturally overcome traditional sources just in cost benefit alone, there is no need to hurt the productivity of countries to make that happen.

      • by angel'o'sphere (80593) on Saturday August 18, 2012 @07:23PM (#41040575) Homepage Journal

        Rhe countries that adopted Kyoto protocolls have far less economic problems than the USA. How do you explain that?
        Productivity has nothing to do with the way how energy is produced. It also has not very much to do with how much energy you use for producing something.
        The contrary is true. The more you produce for the same amount of energy *or* the less energy you use to produce the same, the more efficient/productive you are.

      • by aepervius (535155) on Saturday August 18, 2012 @11:14PM (#41042365)
        "Over time alternative energy WILL naturally overcome traditional sources just in cost benefit alone, there is no need to hurt the productivity of countries to make that happen."
        And as asked to conservative when will that happen ? The best answer I got was "when alternative energy are cheaper than oil and coal". The problem is, by that time we have burn so many of both that climate change might be irreversible and well going thru. The problem is that conservative lacks UTTERLY in insight, they see their own generaztion only, and future folk are fucked, but who cares. The problem is, some of us see beyond the next year in econom,y and look at maybe 5 or 10 generation in future. Who cares if you lower economy strength by 5, 10% , if rather than take that you fuck up future generation that the climate get so chaotic that the damage long term is greater. The truth is that conservative don't care a shitty bit on the long term consequence. Which is why by the way they don#t care about pollution law in general.
    • The USA are so keen on fracking because around 2006 the estimated total gas reserves of the USA (ready forproduction) was less then 10 times the anual consumption. Hence the USA stopped producing "normal" natural as and started importing, and now since a few years is doing fracking.
      I have no idea how big the 'frackable' resources are, but I would wonder ifnitnlasts 20 years ...

  • by Jaktar (975138) on Saturday August 18, 2012 @04:10PM (#41038811)

    I work at a coal plant. This year alone the overall power requirement for our area had been lower than the historical average. Yes, we did hit a peak generation record this year as well, but it's been a much milder year than normal.

    We've also seen the cost of natural gas fall to the point where it was cheaper to leave the coal plants on standby and run the natural gas plants for the power demand.

    This year we've run about 50% less than last year.

    • by Areyoukiddingme (1289470) on Saturday August 18, 2012 @09:38PM (#41041669)

      50%? Seriously? *boggle* That's a serious drop. That's a huge drop, considering the population is the highest it's ever been. Or does your plant serve one of the areas that has lost population? Ohio and Michigan both have lost so much population over the past decade that they lost Congressional seats.

  • by bradley13 (1118935) on Saturday August 18, 2012 @04:14PM (#41038841) Homepage

    I remember reading an article many years ago - long before the global warming scare - that pointed out that moving to lower carbon fuels was a long-term trend. Industry started out with coal and charcoal, essentually pure carbon. Then it moved on to oil, which contains a mix of carbon and hydrogen. Natural gas was up-and-coming, with 1 carbon to 4 hydrogens. The article assumed that the future held nuclear and solar, both of which are essentially zero-carbon.

    Aside from the hiccups with nuclear (justified or not, depending on your point of view), the article seems to have been pretty prescient.

  • Go Nuclear (Score:4, Informative)

    by RudyHartmann (1032120) on Saturday August 18, 2012 @05:08PM (#41039285)

    You could go nuclear and avoid so much of it's proliferation and disposal drawbacks by going with liquid flouride thorium reactors (LFTR's). But then again, if you wanted to create a big government pie-in-the-sky "make work" project, you could pursue fusion. Oh yeah, they're already doing that.

  • What about methane? (Score:5, Informative)

    by the eric conspiracy (20178) on Saturday August 18, 2012 @05:49PM (#41039671)

    Methane leakage is a significant source of greenhouse gases.

    It's quite questionable as to whether the switch to natural gas is a significant benefit in terms of global warming for a variety of reasons.

    http://energyinnovation.org/2012/05/natural-gas-methane-leakage-and-climate-change/ [energyinnovation.org]

  • by Maury Markowitz (452832) on Saturday August 18, 2012 @07:17PM (#41040531) Homepage

    "director of the Earth System Science Center at Penn State University, said the shift away from coal is reason for 'cautious optimism' about potential ways to deal with climate change"

    Only if we close the plants down. If the economy comes back soon and these things are still operational, they'll turn them back on.

    We should strike while the iron is hot and get these things closed. It's very easy to make a gas plant, we can have ample capacity in time for a resurgence in industry.

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