Society and regional strategies 3 min

Ethical implications of major international agreements: the Sustainable Development Goals and Paris Agreement on climate change

The INRA-CIRAE-IFREMER Joint Ethics Committee delivered its tenth opinion, which examines the ethical implications for research of major international agreements: the Sustainable Development Goals, adopted by the United Nations in 2015, and the Paris Agreement on climate change, adopted following the 21st Conference of the Parties, also in 2015. The committee issued its opinion following the joint referral by top management at the three organisations.

Published on 01 September 2021

illustration Ethical implications of major international agreements: the Sustainable Development Goals and Paris Agreement on climate change

The Joint Ethics Committee focused on three main questions:

  • The theoretical foundations of these international agreements, including the need to improve human well-being and protect the biosphere;
  • How to include cultural or practice-based criteria related to different societies or social groups in research when implementing principles expressed using universal language;
  • How to manage the application of these major international agreements and determine priorities in research governance and researchers’ practices.

Should the environment be protected because it contributes to people’s well-being and our production capacity, or because it is a means to an end? The Joint Ethics Committee suggests that the choice does not have to be one or the other: efforts can be made to balance both approaches and consider actions across time and space. The committee calls on researchers to always examine what makes each situation different despite the general nature of the major UN agreements.

How can cultural differences between societies and social groups be taken into account when implementing major international agreements that are expressed in universal language? The Joint Ethics Committee notes that “these differences should not be considered obstacles for collaboration; on the contrary, they foster progress and can be hugely beneficial for research work when acknowledged in accordance with best practices”. Taking different cultural practices into account can be encouraged through a territorial-based approach rather than focusing on the production sector, as well as by raising awareness among foreign workers about how local populations think, express themselves and react so researchers can respect these differences in their work practices. Finally, the Joint Ethics Committee recommends decentralisation, capacity-building for local teams, new forums for debate, and bottom-up approaches to balance the top-down approach of major international agreements.

What are the implications for research governance and practices? Interdisciplinarity and transdisciplinarity are tools that can help researchers better take into account the multiple and sometimes contradictory objectives of major international agreements. Researchers must be careful when involved in policy-making processes to maintain their scientific integrity without encroaching on policymakers’ or citizens’ responsibilities. Their role is to provide information and advice, but not to make decisions. The committee recommends the generalised use of declarations of interest by researchers. With regard to research funding, researchers should refuse to get involved in projects with aims that do not align with the objectives of their institutions or major international agreements.

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