Climate change and risks 10 min

The carbon market: taking the heat out of the climate crisis

The carbon market in the agricultural sector has two key drivers : to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and to find a way to pay for more sustainable farming practices. INRAE’s societal initiatives in this area, whether they are achieved through the institute’s own research activities or its contributions to public policy and private projects both in France and further afield, must be founded on a solid evidence base produced using robust methodologies to measure and track the carbon that is sequestrated on farmland and in forests. An explainer from Suzanne Reynders, who has been appointed jointly by the Institute’s Scientific Director of Environment and its Vice-President of International Policy to take forward this aspect of the Institute’s work.

Published on 17 May 2021

illustration The carbon market: taking the heat out of the climate crisis

[For English subtitles, see parameters]

As the climate continues to change, the opportunity has opened up for agriculture, despite its status as a net producer of greenhouse gases, to act as a lever to mitigate the effects of the climate crisis by controlling greenhouse gas emissions (GHGs) and moving to positive agricultural practices that sequestrate carbon in the soil.

INRAE is working to turn this opportunity into a reality, as Suzanne Reynders tells us.

Using agricultural soils for carbon storage

The  '4 per 1000’ initiative was launched by France on 1 December 2015 at COP 21. The project, in which INRAE is a partner, aims to boost carbon storage by working with farmers and land managers to establish agricultural practices (such as agroeocology, agroforestry, conservation agriculture and landscape management) that are appropriate to local conditions. It encourages participants to raise awareness of ways to increase soil carbon sequestration, whether by showcasing their own existing practices or by explaining the changes they plan to make in the way they manage their land.

Carbon market: satisfy public demand for climate action and show to what extent agriculture can be a solution

In 2019, at the request of ADEME (the French Agency for Ecological Transition) and the French Ministry for Agriculture and Food, INRAE delivered a collective scientific expertise on the potential in French agriculture for carbon storage. The Institute’s expert report ranks the measures available and provides cost estimates, acting as a reference document in the Institute’s discussions with the socio-economic sector.

Recently, through its partnership with the international PlanetA initiative, the Institute has been able to embark on further projects in this area. These include a national workstream that makes further use of the data collected in the 4 per 1000 study in order to assess the correlation between the duration of crop cover and the quantity of carbon captured in the soil, along with an international initiative that uses remote sensing around the world to monitor cropping schedules at the scale of the individual agricultural parcel to establish the proportion of the year that annual crops are in the ground.

The CIRCASA project (Coordination of International Research Cooperation on Soil Carbon Sequestration in Agriculture, EU H2020, 2017-2021), coordinated by INRAE, was designed to develop international synergies for research and knowledge exchange in the field of soil carbon sequestration in agriculture in Europe and globally. One possible legacy project currently being explored is the creation of an International Research Consortium on Soil Carbon.

Balancing the books on carbon emissions

France has been involved since 2018 in implementing what is described as a voluntary carbon market as part of its drive to meet its COP21 climate targets. INRAE’s expertise is part of this undertaking.

The French Ministry for Ecological and Inclusive Transition is supporting the establishment of the market through a certification framework to recognise carbon-capture methods that allow the quantification of avoided or sequestrated carbon and it launched a Low Carbon product label in 2019. The intention behind this label is to encourage projects that feature voluntary reduction of GHS emissions and soil and biomass carbon sequestration, particularly those involving forestry and tree-planting. Schemes that have been awarded the label can apply to receive carbon offset payments (reflecting how much CO2 in tonnes has been either avoided or sequestrated) from businesses, local government bodies or community groups wanting to compensate for their emissions using this carbon-credit system. INRAE has been instrumental in developing calculation methods for the system (taking into account, for example, participation by livestock farmers in the Carbon-Agri framework, or the management of hedgerows, orchards and field crops).

The initiative has received a further boost from the French Ministry for Agriculture and Food in the form of a ‘carbon survey voucher’ that offers newly-established farmers the opportunity to conduct a carbon audit and create a carbon action plan for their farms. A call for projects, which INRAE has helped to prepare, is in progress.


Europe’s substantial cohort of KICs (Knowledge and Innovation Communities) are expert networks who are convened by the EIT (European Institute of Innovation and Technology). They include the flagship EIT Climate-KIC whose members are working to accelerate the transition a zero-carbon economy. Suzanne Reynders has been the driving force behind INRAE’s commitment to this community for many years and, since October 2020, has been a member of its Board of Directors. She makes a particular contribution to project development and to collaboration with Climate-KIC partners on climate-change adaptation and mitigation in agriculture (one example being the Friendly Fruit project, coordinated by INRAE).

Tracking sequestrated carbon levels through time

In order to estimate and track the quantity of soil sequestrated carbon through time we need measurement methods that are repeatable, reliable and transparent. A support framework also needs to be established to help those involved in this particular transition. The Institute is strongly invested in this process, working to develop knowledge and contributing to exchanges of practical know-how, for example, by using its expert knowledge and skills to support the development of local pilots for soil carbon sequestration.

In a recent study funded by ADEME, Suzanne Reynders and her colleagues have explored the various methodologies devised to measure soil carbon storage gains (ie. the additional carbon stored in the soil as the result of changes to practice) and have analysed the most appropriate economic models to support such gains.

Satellite imagery has a major contribution to make to the quantification of increases in soil carbon storage. Work carried out by CESBIO (the French Centre for the Study of the Biosphere from Space, working in partnership with INRAE since 2018) has enabled the ‘Naturellement Popcorn’ project to be created, of which INRAE is pleased to be a partner. The purpose of the project is to provide a financial reward to popcorn maize producers for their positive impact on the environment and the climate.  Based in the South West of France, it is also a pilot project for the pioneering European landscape project, Carbon Farming.

Created in 2019 and supported by the EIT Climate-KIC, the Carbon Farming project adopts a systemic approach to increase soil carbon sequestration, while taking into account the needs of its multiple stakeholders and partners along with due consideration of local contexts. It has created a European pilot-site network, making it possible for projects to share a wide range of experience relating to agricultural practices, use of measurement tools, funding and insurance – in short, the contextual information without which the work of these pilot sites cannot be scaled up successfully.

What next?

The Institute believes that the importance of the carbon market lies in its potential to satisfy public demand for climate action. Agriculture is one of the market’s main areas of operation and, in turn, the market is is a cornerstone of the European energy-climate strategy, providing a key pathway to reduce emissions and combat climate change. As part of this process, the portfolios held by Suzanne Reynders and the functions she performs are integral to the Institute’s overall drive to support agriculture’s response to the climate emergency at national, European and global scales.

Research, training and expert advice for public policy-making are in INRAE’s DNA, they are the means by which it assists national government to turn policy into action, deploying its expertise to develop new ways to scale up climate action such as, in this instance, the certification frameworks. With its extensive experience in numerous European projects and initiatives, the Institute is currently working on creating a Europe-wide Low-Carbon label scheme.

In all, the above provides an impressive demonstration of how a research institute such as INRAE can rise to the challenges of the climate emergency.

Catherine Foucaud-Scheunemanntranslated by Teresa Bridgeman


Suzanne Reynders Project leader appointed by INRAE’s Scientific Director of Environment and Vice-President of International PolicyManagement Board


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