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Green Planet

Tipping Points in Australia’s Climate Change debates. Where to Now?

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A record-breaking high summer came early to Australia in 2019. By October, the daily weather map of the country was charting the rapid spread of catastrophic bushfires in disparate regions across the entire island continent. This meant recurrent, intense weather events that combined 40°C temperatures, ferocious winds and dry lightning storms, in which sparse rainfall evaporated before it reached the ground. With the forecasts came repeated warnings: the country’s substantial resources and manpower provided no guarantee the fires that were erupting in such conditions could be contained. Nor that local people and properties could be safeguarded.

For months on end came each day’s tally of the nightmarish realisation of the forecasts. By early January 2020, almost two million hectares of the countryside had been reduced to blackened landscapes. Among the hardest hit were the eastern states where 80% of Australia’s population live. Out-of-control fires in the tinder-dry old eucalypt forests and remote mountain bushland were merging into megafires. Along a 1000 kilometre front on the New South Wales seaboard this meant up to 60 metre walls of flame and ember showers that created windblown spot fires up to 30 kilometres away. With little chance of saving their homes, residents of towns and villages evacuated to makeshift community centres and nearby beaches. An estimated 800-900 houses were destroyed, with a higher number anticipated as evacuated families gradually return to streets of rubble and ash. Driven by the strong winds, a thick, toxic pall of grey smoke had also blanketed coastal areas, as well as inland regions including the national capital of Canberra. Peaking at around 20 times acceptable levels of pollution, the pure mountain air of Australia’s showpiece garden city now had an Air Quality Index that was among the highest in the world. The city’s government handed out free face masks, advised its citizens to stay indoors and for a time closed public institutions and offices. With the sun a spectral red in a sepia-coloured sky, the result was a sensation of eerie, off-world emptiness. As one commentator suggested, the bushfires were like some relentless, hellish creature stalking Australians from all directions.

Meantime, the season of horror and catastrophe has brought renewed momentum to the country’s climate change debates. These are strongly politicised debates. With at least a thirty-year history, they have ranged from the baneful nonsense of the Far Right’s outright climate change denial; to a hesitant, ill-informed scepticism about the limits and accuracy of the science that links Australia’s weather patterns of recurrent droughts, floods and bushfires to wider global climate change; to claims that our carbon emissions are insignificant when compared to those of China, Russia or the US; to apocalyptic predictions of an imminent ‘sixth extinction’ caused by wilful ignorance of the extent of humankind’s destruction of the planet’s eco-systems. In more recent years, there also has gradually emerged qualified optimism that innovative, adaptive technologies can and will provide solutions to the environmental threats.

But in the wake of the bushfires, the prevailing consensus among Australians is challenging the confusion and complacency generated by these debates. To an angry public, the destruction wrought was unarguably unprecedented and only explicable in terms of global climate change. This is evident across social media outlets, the mainstream press, elite opinion makers, the emergency services, the rural towns and farming communities, the more progressive voices in the corporate sector, and to the thousands of anti-government demonstrators on the streets of the state capitals calling for Prime Minister Scott Morrison’s dismissal. Their insistent view has been that their country was blindsided by its third-rate governance under Morrison’s extreme Right-Wing leadership. Specifically, this has meant federal government inertia, dismissal of warnings by independent experts, and funding cuts to key bureaucracies, climate change research institutes and fire control services. The result has been that Australia was drastically ill- prepared for the impact of the coming summer of extreme temperatures combined with prolonged drought.

Moreover, the Morrison government has been widely accused of falling back on traditional, nationalistic ‘meet and beat’ rhetoric. Here what is implied is that we resourceful Aussies would voluntarily rise to the challenge of the seasonal bushfires and emerge victorious. It has also been the Prime Minister’s sloganizing term for his repeated claim that Australia continues to advance towards its 2030 carbon emission reduction targets. For the country’s climate change researchers, and probably most of the rest of the world, this last apparent reassurance severely strains credibility. Not least this is because the current fires have been belching poisonous carbon monoxide and dioxide into the stratosphere, already reaching approximately twice the levels of Russia’s 2019 Siberian wildfires. According to data from a December, 2019 World Economic Forum Report, the bushfires had already pumped out half a year’s CO2 emissions. As well, the report warned that ‘vegetation vital for absorbing CO2 is being destroyed by the blazes.’ To paraphrase a recent media headline, when it comes to climate change debates, ‘Australia has a serious bulldust problem.’ In short, Prime Minister Morrison’s ad hoc political strategies have been perceived as omitting any substantial forward planning or persuasive policy agenda.

All of which raises the question of the extent to which the bushfires might prove to be a turning point towards a more enlightened, informed plan to protect and nurture our environment. The concern is that it might be slow in coming. With some fires yet to be extinguished and smog predicted to choke cities and regional areas at least until April, 2020, for the immediate future the focus is on clean-up and recovery. The Morrison government is providing a two billion dollar funding package for a range of welfare services and for rebuilding communities, as well as for the millions of injured birds and animals to be rescued, nursed and relocated to surviving bush habitats. Australia’s Defence Forces have also been deployed to help in the recovery efforts. Though much needed, it is a strategy that has been satirised by one of Australia’s leading political cartoonists as a panicked Morrison with his backside on fire holding out a fistful of dollars to a scornful polity.

What then of this alleged absence of substantial national policy-making, of the urgent need for transformational planning as the world changes? At a grassroots level the bushfires are already proving to be a further stimulus to a long list of environmentally conscious initiatives, from the rejection of plastic packaging, to voluntary community replanting of tree coverage and grasslands, to fashionable inner-city restaurants surrounded by their own patches of homegrown vegetables, to eco housing design that includes the use of fireproof materials and air filters, to cycling to one’s workplace. For example, in Canberra its territory government guidelines require all new housing to include a water storage tank under the foundations and solar panels on the roof; there is a network of bicycle paths across the city, weekend markets for regional organic farm produce, and fenced sanctuaries to protect native wildlife, which are monitored by park rangers. In line with other state capitals and countries, the city is also phasing out the use of gas, as a stepping stone towards a target of zero carbon emissions by 2045.

With the hope of a more fundamental impact that transcends federal government complacency, there is also an expanding, grassroots focus on the applied science of long-term regenerative agriculture, whose aim is to rescue the arid, drought-ravaged farmlands. Its methodologies go beyond the long-standing European techniques of artificial soil fertilisation and piped irrigation, of the kind that have risked turning the inland lakes and river systems, most notably the Murray Darling Basin, into shallow, permanently-polluted puddles. Instead the starting point is a geographical survey to identify the potential of a degraded, natural water course. The next step is the planting of an abundance of native trees, shrubs, reeds and rushes along its banks and erecting stock proof fencing. As well, ‘live weirs’ are built at intervals to provide erosion control structures that slow water flow and help to reinvigorate the surrounding floodplain through spreading seepage. Within a decade or so the result is described by its practitioners as: a healthy, vibrant ecosystem, filtering water through its extensive reed beds, capturing flood sediments, recycling nutrients and providing complex habitat for birds, mammals, reptiles, frogs, fish and invertebrates. Productivity on the floodplain also increases by around 60%.

The success of an initial project on Mulloon Creek in the New South Wales hinterland has not only been profitable, but has led to establishment of the Mulloon Institute. The Institute has since been selected by the United Nations Sustainable Development Solutions Network (SDSN) as among its top five for its world class development of environmental resilience alongside agricultural productivity. Its current aim is to facilitate 100 landscape projects across Australia and internationally that are similarly profitable and sustainable. Incidentally, it has also been pointed out that these methodologies might well have prevented the fertile gardens of ancient Mesopotamia’s Tigris/Euphrates floodplain becoming the deserts of modern Iraq.

What follows considers a more comprehensive national economic plan that addresses directly the failures of successive, backward-looking conservative governments in preparing the country for the savage onslaught of climate change. The plan incorporates more than a decade of econometric monitoring by the University of Melbourne’s Professorial Fellow, Ross Garnaut, that compares the rising financial costs of maintaining our fossil fuel industries with the profitability of transitioning to renewable energy sources. When he began his study in 2007, Garnaut says, his data confirmed the prevalent assumption that a transition economy based on renewable energy and zero carbon emission technologies would be marked by a period of austerity detrimental to both developed and developing countries. His most recent book, Superpower Australia’s Low-Carbon Opportunity, published in November 2019, reviews his earlier data, concluding that such economic considerations have changed fundamentally and will continue to do so. Falling global interest rates which have reduced the cost of capital, combined with the likely rising price of fossil fuels as a result of increasing demand in large developing countries, is making products and projects that reduce green-house gas emissions more lucrative alternative investments.

In addition, there have been relatively rapid transformative cost reductions in machinery for producing electricity from wind and sun, in battery storage of electricity, and decarbonisation through electrification of transport and in other areas from small to medium businesses to large-scale manufacturing. In other words, for an imaginative, forward-looking company there is a considerable wealth to be made in the transition economy. Garnaut also concludes that Australia is singularly blessed with the geography and resources to be a front-runner in the creation of multi- billion dollar domestic and export industries in renewables. ‘If we all understood the economic value of a transition to renewables,’ he says, ‘we could move from policy incoherence to hope.’ With regard to the issue of whether wishing makes it so, of whether despite his detailed pursuit of statistical evidence in the dismal thickets of economics, Garnaut errs on the side of optimism, his book elucidates a couple of core Australian case studies. The first charts his personal experience of applying research-based knowledge in partnership with private-enterprise. In 2015, he became Chairman of Zen Energy, a South Australian company, with plans to scale up from a relatively small supplier of solar energy and battery storage technology to providing renewables to entire communities and industries. In 2017, the company merged with the British- based, multi-billionaire, Sanjeev Gupta’s global GFG Alliance. Though the evidence is not yet available, the rebranded SIMEC Energy Australia has claimed it will supply 100% of South Australia’s electricity needs by 2019. As Garnaut puts it: ‘…what in 2008 and 2011 I had perceived to be a possibility of modest dimension had become a high probability of immense economic gain.’

A second of a number case studies outlined in Garnaut’s book is the massive investment in solar farming in the semi-desert expanses of Northern and Western Australia. A $20 billion development by a Singapore-based company, Sun Cable, together with substantial planning and investment by two of Australia’s wealthiest men, Michael Cannon-Brookes and Andrew Forrest, is currently building what it promises will be ‘the world’s largest solar farm.’ The plan is for a 15,000 hectare array of 10-gigawatt capacity panels, backed by battery storage, which would not only supplement domestic electricity needs. The clean energy would also be exported to Singapore, using a 4500 kilometre, high-voltage, submarine cable. The company’s Chief Executive, David Griffin, describes the project as capturing ‘one of the best solar radiance reserves in the world,’ adding it will operational in less than decade. Further to the west in the Pilbara region, plans are also currently being developed by the Asian Renewable Energy Hub for an even bigger wind and solar hybrid plant, using giant wind turbines and solar panels. The electricity generated would be used primarily to run a hydrogen manufacturing hub to supply a proposed export market in Japan and South Korea.

Among many other researchers, Garnaut describes these projects as climate change mitigation. Implicit here is the deep-seated global concern that they will not be adequate in meeting the imperative that carbon emission increases should be less than 2% – and preferably closer to 1.5% — with a reduction target of zero emissions by 2050 to avoid the acceleration of catastrophic weather events. There is some comfort to be had for Australia in his findings that the country is already embracing a global trend towards a transition economy. But Garnaut also implies that there is little to be gained from a federal government that has continued to stump the debates for renewables against fossil fuels. Instead, state government support, grass roots initiatives, private sector enterprises, expertise that informs new developments, global partnerships and investment have been emerging as a way forward to a more hopeful future.

From our partner RIAC

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Global Environmental Governance and Biden’s Administration

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Being the largest emitter of greenhouse gas in the world, it is the responsibility of U.S to contribute expeditiously to manage the environmental issues at domestic and international level but the previous government, under the leadership of Trump, took back seat and reversed all the decisions of Ex-president Barack Obama to combat the climate change. Unlike this, New Elected President, Joe Biden, who is very enthusiastic and firm to fulfill all the promises regarding climate change which were done during the general election’s campaign. Moreover, he views climate change a thwart to national security. One of the biggest achievements associated with Biden’ administration regarding environmental issues is to bring U.S back into Paris Climate Accord and brought executive order’’ Protecting Public Health and the Environment and Restoring science to tackle the climate crisis’’ on the surface.

A flurry of changes to U.S environment policy is going to play a constructive role in global environmental governance under Biden administration. Even before elections, climate change was one of the top priorities and aimed to put the U.S on a path which leads towards ‘’ Zero Net’’ greenhouse gas emission. In the very early of His office days, He is very committed to deal with the climate change as they hosted ‘’ Climate Day’’ to introduce government climate centric approach to emphasize on the climate change.  Biden administration also ordered to revoke a permanent issued for Keystone XL oil pipeline which trump issued for extraction of oil and energy which is dangerous to national ecosystem. In addition to this, they are also very active to promote US role to tackle the climate change at domestic and abroad. At domestic level, Biden’s actions are speaking louder than the words as he has ascribed the climate crisis with a national emergency. At the time of his inauguration, Biden said: ‘’ A cry for survival comes from the planet itself, a cry that can’t be any more desperate or any clearer’’. He also directed his cabinet to work on the policy of ‘’ social carbon cost’’ to measure the cost of actions and how costs will impact the climate change. He endeavors to control the climate change by keeping a strict eye on the big project’s reviewing process before working under the National Environmental Policy Act which calculates the social costs of greenhouse gas emissions.

On international level, Biden has been striving to improve the spoil image shaped by the previous government regarding global environmental governance as he has declared to rejoin the Paris Climate accord which would help to reduce the greenhouse gas emission. In the result of this action, Biden was welcomed by the General Secretary of the United Nations and French Prime Minister Emmanuel Macron by saying ‘’ Welcome Back to the Paris Agreement’’. Moreover, Biden Administration is very determined to convene a global climate summit on the earth day to encourage leaders to align themselves with scientist to alleviate the impacts of climate change. On international forums, US need to cooperate and compel the economic trade partner to take actions to combat with climate crisis. One of the essential steps taken by the Biden administration is to manage the climate refugees which aim to make strategies to compensate the climate affected migrants.

The thin majority of democratic in the senate does not only limit the possibility for Biden to achieve climate change reforms along strong anti-climate lobbyist business group who are inimical to the reforms particularly relevant to vehicle, power plants and oil and gas drilling industries. Without new climate legislation from congress, it would be not an easy task to implement the climate agenda across the borders. The vocal resistance comes from the coal production sectors which result in burning of fossil fuels and caused of greenhouse gas emissions. Whereas, few sectors are opposing the agenda there are also companies specially electrical vehicles are exclusively offering assistance to Biden for the sustainable development. Undoubtedly, environmental organizations and scientists community applauded the Biden decisions but few business groups have also filed a lawsuit against Biden to not stop the new permit for oil and gas drilling. There are also concerned raised by the community that climate actions will delete many jobs and cause of upsurge in unemployment percentage across the federation.

It is very evident from the ambitions of Biden’s action regarding climate crisis that he is very interesting to mitigate and curb the climate change but it will require highly comprehensive strategy aims to manage the reforms in laws while taking congressmen in confidence because most of them are not in favor of climate actions due to clash of interests. On the other hand, there is need to work on renewable energy resources at domestic and international level and for this US should compensate the companies to compete with the old capitalized firms which do not want safe and peaceful planet. Moreover, there is need to bring reforms in existing environmental treaties and their compliance process which should be strictly followed by the harsh actions against the violators. The process of financing the agendas which are very environment friendly and transforming the resources to the periphery states should be done swiftly to improve the environment across the globe. The aims of achieving sustainable development should be promoted and supported by the US across the world.

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EU-Asian Partnerships are necessary to prevent the next pandemic

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COVID-19 has demonstrated the vulnerability of global supply chains and revealed the ever-increasing ecological dangers of industrial expansion, which has amplified the risks of diseases migrating from animals to humans. This is demonstrated in a new report launched by UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres which argues that to prevent future pandemics the world must cooperate to addresses interlinked challenges presented by biodiversity, pollution and the climate crises. The UN chief encouraged everyone to use the report to “re-evaluate and reset our relationship with nature”. 

 This is precisely the time for countries in the European Union (EU) to re-evaluate their trade relations with producer nations in order to protect local environment and prevent deforestation.

The relationship between deforestation and public health and cannot be denied. Unfortunately, in recent years the EU’s economic model has not paid sufficient attention to sustainability, trade and global forest management. So far, the EU’s approach to trade has ended up alienating the most important areas of biodiversity in Asia, while emboldening some of the biggest despoilers of biodiversity and polluters in the Americas. 

The Konrad Adenauer Foundation, the leading think-tank of Germany’s ruling political party, has published its own  report  on how EU policies have unfairly targeted Asian commodities by fostering  protectionist market dynamics which harm the environment.

In one case in point, the EU initiated a ban on the import of palm oil from 2030, as a means to reduce  deforestation in Asia. However, scientific evidence actually indicates that sustainably cultivated palm oil is far better than other seed oil alternatives – rapeseed, coconut, soy and sunflower. Those commodities need up to ten times more land to produce the same amount of oil. Therefore, instead of halting deforestation, the ban simply transfers the effects of ecological degradation elsewhere – namely within the EU on the back of domestically produced commodities.

Meanwhile the EU continues to import beef and soy, the top two contributors to deforestation globally. In fact, beef production requires more than double the forest land than for the production of soy, palm oil, and wood products combined. Land clearing for beef and soy production in the Amazon has reached a 12 year high, leading scientists to warn of an irreversible ‘tipping point’  that could mean huge drought, forest death, and release of great amounts of stored carbon to the atmosphere.

As the Konrad report indicates, the move to ban palm oil while maintaining beef and soy imports is a double standard that has created a trust gap between the EU and ASEAN nations. This has inhibited collaborative efforts to combat deforestation as EU policies exclude ASEAN nations from important sustainability debates. Moreover, the EU ban does nothing to cease palm oil production. Producer nations will continue to produce without adhering to EU environmental standards and regulations. This will spell disaster, not only for the diverse wildlife found in Asia’s tropical forests, but for humanity’s public health – a correlation which cannot be divorced from the economy.

If the EU sought out a trade deal with ASEAN then it could integrate mandatory sustainable standards and enforce regulations to produce sustainable palm oil and limit deforestation.  The EU could also work with existing schemes like the Malaysian Sustainable Palm Oil (MSPO) standard, which purportedly meets the EU’s key sustainability criteria and is the standard against which almost 90% of Malaysian palm oil is now produced.

This is an example of how the EU has overlooked Asian success stories in creating adaptable blueprints through strict and proactive measures which have largely kept the virus at bay and allowed their economies to stay afloat. While Europe’s economy is only expected to grow by 3.7% in 2021, ASEAN nations are predicted to rebound over 6%.

That means we could have the best of both worlds; trade that opens up two powerhouse regions to a new era of economic vitality and cooperation – underpinned by ecological conservation through an unfailing commitment to protect pristine ecosystems, exotic wildlife and precious forests.

 The EU should use the lessons of the pandemic to capitalize on its environmental goals, working with producer nations to ensure they are participating in ethical markets and enforcing sustainable practices which maintain biodiversity.

If the EU can build a global coalition with Asia, which prioritises trade and sustainability, they can underpin a bold new era in the fight for thriving, Covid-free economies.

Such cooperation would empower the European Union to encourage environmental consciousness across Asian economies—by incentivising compliance with laudable environmental goals and dis-incentivising noncompliance. There would be significant economic benefits to EU consumers as well like access to efficient and affordable edible oils from rapidly growing emerging markets. While in turn the producer would have access to the EU’s uniquely large market.

These are clearly more than enough reasons to compel the EU to act. Let’s hope they start soon.

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Making Women Visible in Plastic Waste Management: Examples from Indonesia

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Plastic Waste: Long History, Massive Consumption

Plastic was invented by John Wesley Hyatt in 1869 and has an original sense of “pliable and easily formed.” It is known as a polymer material. However, Leo Baekeland introduced the revolutionary of plastic in 1907, with the intention of creating a material that could be used as an insulator, was versatile, heat resistant, and could be mass-produced in large quantities. The glory of plastic was exalted during World War II, when the plastic industry in the United States expanded rapidly. Since it could be used to replace natural resources that had become scarce due to the war, plastic use peaked during that time span. Since then, plastic has been touted as an “award-winning” commodity due to its plethora of uses. Unfortunately, the use of plastic distracted in the 1960s as people became more worried about environmental issues and discovered that many coastal lines in America were littered with plastic waste.

These days, plastic can be categorized as the most manufactured materials in the world and commonly used by society. From the latest data by IUCN, over 300 million tons of plastic are manufactured yearly and utilized as main materials for industry and households. About 8 million metric tons of plastic wastes end up in our coastal zones every year, posing a serious threat to our marine ecology and ocean sediments. By the end of 2040, it is estimated that the amount of plastic waste dumped along the coast will be tripled compare with today.

In most developing countries, plastic contamination has become a major problem that requires immediate concern and management. Indonesia is currently the world’s second-largest plastic polluter after China, and produces about 200,000 tons of waste every day, which is thrown into the coastal areas. Despite the fact that there are plenty studies on plastic waste, people still ignored the problem due to their lack of knowledge and awareness about how harmful the effect could become in the upcoming years. Plastics production and consumption will make greater impacts not only on human health because it contained chemicals, but also will change human behavior to environment, both men and women. In Indonesia, women take role as the main contributor to raise such awareness in segregating and sorting plastic waste. This fact is parallel with the research that has been conducted by Phelan et al (2020) in two small islands in Indonesia (Selayar and Wakatobi), which found that women are mostly identified as binners (those who manage waste disposal) while men are likely identified as litterers. It was noted that almost 60% of women are in charge of household waste management, while only 40% of men involve in this activity. Women are expressing an interest in learning more about waste management, especially to learn about the next steps or what happens to the waste after disposal. Men, on the other hand, are taking important roles in waste collection and disposal process.

Gender Sensitive Approach to Manage Plastic Waste

Women play an important role in the use and recycling of plastic, but their contribution is often overlooked by many stakeholders. Plastic waste management is viewed solely from a scientific standpoint, with little consideration given to the gender implications. For example, at the micro level (households), it is customary for women to have control over the purchase of food and home-products (which has influenced them to use plastic packaging), but they may also be recycling and processing the plastic for other uses at the same time. As a result, their involvement and inclusion are critical in every attempt to enhance waste management and reduce plastic pollution. When looking at recent developments in the field, the relevance of gender-sensitive approaches to handling plastics becomes even more apparent.

Plastic waste management is not something that can be done overnight because it necessitates continuous steps and massive behavioral changes on the part of all parties concerned. Since women play such an important role in the use and recycling of plastic waste, it is critical to involve them as a key player in changing household and community disposal habits. Furthermore, as the primary caregivers in the home, women should raise awareness among family members about the dangers of plastic waste. Similar actions can be taken in society; for example, women can organize a soft-campaign and disseminate waste management information to the community (through regular social gathering conducted by women that called ‘arisan’ or regular religious meeting in community that called ‘pengajian’).Women, at the other side, cannot act alone; they need a cost-effective and simple plastic waste management system, as well as waste management training (which has been initiated by local governments and NGOs). Hence, providing a plastic collection station will help many stakeholders embrace this action. Finally, strong commitment and collaboration from relevant parties can help to improve plastic waste management.

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