illustration Jean-François Soussana, promoting INRAE science at the international scale
© INRAE C. Maitre

Climate change and risks 5 min

Jean-François Soussana, promoting INRAE science at the international scale

Even though INRA became INRAE on January 1, 2020, Jean-François Soussana is still in charge of international research policy, a role where he makes full use of his broad skill set. He is the perfect person for the job, given his research on the effects of climate change on grassland ecology, the carbon cycle, and the nitrogen cycle and his extensive expertise at the national level (French High Council for the Climate), the European level (soils committee), and the international level (IPCC, 4 per 1000 initiative).

Published on 01 December 2019



Working in teams and networks enhances creativity

Soussana states, "Today's research is carried out by global research networks." Over the course of his career, he has become an internationally recognized figure in the environmental sciences. In March 2017, he took the natural next step by accepting to serve as INRA's vice president of international policy. His objectives are the following: to expand the institute's scientific impact, promote its priorities via international policies, improve the tools used in European and international collaborations, and emphasize the contributions made by INRA research and expertise in the quest to solve global challenges.

Scientists must join forces to save the environment

In 2015, France hosted two global climate change conferences, one in Montpellier (Climate Smart Agriculture) and one in Paris (COP 21). Soussana served on the scientific committees for both. The three-day COP 21 brought in 2,200 participants from 95 countries and elicited the strong engagement of scientists and politicians alike. During COP 21, Soussana coordinated the conference's scientific activities, from disseminating up-to-date knowledge to brainstorming about future research directions.  The Paris Agreement gave rise to a unique initiative that is being led by France, with help from INRA, CIRAD, IRD, and the CGIAR consortium4 per 1000, or carbon sequestration in soils for food security and the climate. The goal is to implement agricultural and forestry practices that increase soil organic matter and carbon sequestration with a view to increasing the amount of carbon in the top 40 cm of soils by 0.4% per year at a global scale. Soussana explains, "Promising results have been obtained in Europe and other parts of the world. In Portugal, where carbon storage levels have been monitored since 2009, the restoration of degraded grasslands has helped store 1 million tons of carbon. This result was accomplished by seeding lands with grass-legume mixtures and providing extra phosphorus." This work is the culmination of long-term research projects of which Soussana has been a participant since the earliest days of his career.

Grasslands as bioindicators of climate change

In the 1980s, Soussana earned his master's degree and PhD at Montpellier SupAgro (then known as ENSAM). He comments, “I have always been interested in questions related to the environment and natural systems. I therefore felt that attending a school specialized in agricultural research would take me in the right direction. However, little did I know that I would end up pursuing a career in research.”
Hired as a research scientist at the INRA of Clermont-Theix in 1986, Soussana conducted experiments at the interface between ecology and agronomy, studying the role of legumes in grasslands. He explains, “I first tackled fundamental questions related to the functional importance of plant enzymes and studied how plants controlled nitrogen fixation. The goal was to reduce the need for fertilizers and increase production quality.”
Starting in the 1990s, he became interested in studying the effects of increasing atmospheric CO2 levels. He took part in one of INRA’s first research programs to address climate change and the effects of greenhouse gases. His research team consequently launched multigeneration experiments. Those of the fourth and last generation are focused on the impacts of extreme climatic events, such as the one experienced in 2003 and those expected to occur towards the end of the century. Soussana says, “We now have a better understanding of the combined effect of these factors and the role of climate variability.” This experimental research has occurred in tandem with the development of detailed models, which can be used to predict the consequences of climate change. He states, “These models, which take into plant diversity and the interactions between plants and soil organisms, are adding to our knowledge of how ecosystems functionally respond to global change.”

An international expert who translates knowledge into action

Very quickly, those in charge of international research projects sought out Soussana and his expertise. Unexpected and intriguing results emerged from the first European project he led on the role of grasslands and livestock farms in greenhouse gas dynamics (i.e., carbon, nitrogen, and methane).  He comments, "European grasslands generally act as sinks for carbon. Indeed, their removal of atmospheric carbon may outstrip emissions of methane and N2O, in CO2 equivalents. This finding may mean that grasslands provide environmental benefits, even if the associated production of livestock results in net greenhouse gas emissions.”
In 1998, Soussana became a member of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), a watershed moment for his career. In 2007, the IPCC—and therefore Soussana—was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. He reflects, “This type of collective expertise has had a tremendous impact at the global scale. The amount of knowledge we have acquired is impressive, and we are in the process of testing numerous hypotheses.” Soussana has published 156 articles in peer-reviewed journals and several books, which have also contributed to his scientific renown. Through his participation in different international scientific committees, he is engaged in raising scientific awareness in the general public, defining research strategies, and finding science-based solutions. His extensive contributions resulted in his being named INRA's scientific director for the environment in 2010.

Soussana is now INRAE vice president for international policy. His main challenge is balancing the increasing number of responsibilities he has taken on over the years. He remarks, “When you are participating in several research programs and activities, all of which interest you, the problem is finding the requisite time and energy, as well as developing the necessary organizational skills. It often seems like I am trying to juggle several different careers.” He feels lucky to be able to rely on the INRA research powerhouse, which he sees as deriving its strength from an extended internal network of skilled individuals.




Emmanuelle Manck, Julie Cheriguene translated by Jessica Pearce


Jean-François SoussanaVice President in charge of International Policy