Increased influence of nitrogen limitation on CO2 emissions from historical and future land use and land-use change

Atul K Jain1, Prasanth Meiyappan1 and Joanna I House2

1Department of Atmospheric Sciences, University of Illinois, Urbana, IL 61801, USA

2Department of Geography, Cabot Institute, University of Bristol, Bristol, BS8 1SS, UK


We estimate the impacts of nitrogen limitation on the CO2 emissions from land use and land-use change (LULUC), including wood harvest, for the period 1900-2100. We use a land-surface model that includes a fully coupled carbon and nitrogen cycle, and accounts for forest regrowth processes following agricultural abandonment and wood harvest. Future projections are based on the four Representation Concentration Pathways used in the IPCC Fifth Assessment Report. Results show that excluding nitrogen limitation will underestimate global LULUC emissions by 34-52 PgC (20-30%) during the 20th century and by 128-187 PgC (90-150%) during the 21st century. The underestimation increases with time because: (1) Projected annual wood harvest rates from forests summed over the 21st century are 380-1080% higher compared to those of the 20th century, resulting in more regrowing secondary forests, (2) Nitrogen limitation reduces the CO2 fertilization effect on net primary production of regrowing secondary forests following wood harvest and agricultural abandonment, and (3) Nitrogen limitation effect is aggravated by the gradual loss of soil nitrogen from LULUC disturbance. Our study implies that: (1) Nitrogen limitation of CO2 uptake is substantial and sensitive to nitrogen inputs, (2) If LULUC emissions are larger than previously estimated in studies without nitrogen limitation, then meeting the same climate mitigation target would require an equivalent additional reduction of fossil fuel emissions, and (3) The effectiveness of land-based mitigation strategies will critically depend on the interactions between nutrient limitations and secondary forests resulting from LULUC.