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The Road to Paris: Hashtags and Hair Spray

The Road to Paris: Hashtags and Hair Spray

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Katie Sarro

Profile Photo

Katie Sarro

#RoadtoParis. #SB42. #COP21. #Paris2015. In today’s world, where social media is king, everything has a hashtag. The four I just mentioned are all associated with one major event: the 21st session of the Conference of the Parties to the UNFCCC. That’s right: This December, governments of over 190 countries will gather in the City of Light with the aim of striking a deal to reduce global emissions and mitigate climate change. And the whole world is talking about the “Road to Paris.”

Paris comes with some lofty ambitions, but before we can understand where the world’s leaders are hoping to go, we need to look at where we’ve been. While there is no official starting point to the climate change conversation, we’re going to begin in Montreal, 1989, when a hashtag was just a number sign, and we were not yet spoiled by the notion of real time updates the internet has awarded us.

If you were a child of the '80s and were anything like me, you may remember (unsuccessfully) requesting that your grandmother give up her Aqua Net aerosol hair spray so the hole in the ozone layer didn’t get any bigger. Why did you do this? Because the #MontrealProtocol, the first universally ratified UN treaty, started the conversation about protecting the ozone layer by phasing out ozone-depleting substances like chlorofluorocarbons. You know, #savetheozone, #stopCFCs.


While I was busy putting Aqua Net out of business — and this would be a good time to mention that hair spray has not, in fact, contained CFCs in the U.S. since the 1970s — world leaders were gathering again, this time in Rio de Janeiro in 1992. #Rio quickly became a buzzword in itself (as would #Rioplus20 in 2012). But the original #EarthSummit brought us #Agenda21: the “blueprint for sustainability in the 21st century.” The universal commitment to sustainable development launched the trajectory that got us where we are today and gave us the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), the international environmental treaty that formed the basis for future climate negotiations.

By the time world leaders gathered in Kyoto in 1997, #globalwarming was not only a thing, it was considered more than likely to be a manmade phenomenon. The #KyotoProtocol set up emissions reduction commitments through 2012 for industrialized countries but ignored developing countries, including the likes of China and India. As we quickly discovered, making the #richditchemissions wasn’t the solution since countries like the U.S. failed to ratify the agreement and global emissions continued to rise.

Fast forward to 2009, when the parties gathered once again, this time in Copenhagen, to discuss a post-Kyoto climate change framework. Unfortunately for all, the result was a #Copenhagencollapse and climate talks virtually froze. But things heated up again in 2010 in Cancun—by #2degrees, to be precise. Cancun brought the world to the realization that 2°C (3.6°F), the highest possible increase in global surface temperature before we hit #climatepocalypse, was the global tipping point that needed to be avoided at all costs. This became the major target of all subsequent climate negotiations.

The most recent stop on the road to Paris was the 42nd sessions of the Subsidiary Body for Implementation (#SB42) in Bonn, Germany just this month. This time, world leaders optimistically rallied behind a long-term goal for #decarbonization of the global economy. Delivery of a sound #climatefinance mechanism to deliver $100 billion by 2020 through the #GreenClimateFund agreed upon in Cancun proved to be a major talking point, though it remains to be seen whether governments and the private sector can come together to meet this goal.


There were, of course, many other developments along the way but this abridged version demonstrates the leaps and bounds the climate conversation has made since 1989. We must realize, though, that #COP21 is another stop along the path to long-term sustainability rather than the end of the road. It’s also important to note that there are things we want from Paris, and there are things we need, and the two may not be the same. We need to keep the world below two degrees. We need to enable sustainable growth in developing countries. But, really, we need to move forward, whether collectively or individually.

We want a global agreement that tells us what, when, why and how. The reality, though, is that there is no silver bullet. While an agreement would be symbolic, lessons from the past would indicate that it is more likely a treaty would be held together by hair spray rather than glue. So when faced with the choice of going quickly alone or further together, which path will world leaders take in Paris? And does it really matter as long as we are able to move forward? The hashtags that will answer these questions are #stillunwritten.

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