Integrating the evidence for a terrestrial carbon sink caused by increasing atmospheric CO2

New Phytol. 2021 Mar;229(5):2413-2445. doi: 10.1111/nph.16866. Epub 2020 Oct 21.


Atmospheric carbon dioxide concentration ([CO2 ]) is increasing, which increases leaf-scale photosynthesis and intrinsic water-use efficiency. These direct responses have the potential to increase plant growth, vegetation biomass, and soil organic matter; transferring carbon from the atmosphere into terrestrial ecosystems (a carbon sink). A substantial global terrestrial carbon sink would slow the rate of [CO2 ] increase and thus climate change. However, ecosystem CO2 responses are complex or confounded by concurrent changes in multiple agents of global change and evidence for a [CO2 ]-driven terrestrial carbon sink can appear contradictory. Here we synthesize theory and broad, multidisciplinary evidence for the effects of increasing [CO2 ] (iCO2 ) on the global terrestrial carbon sink. Evidence suggests a substantial increase in global photosynthesis since pre-industrial times. Established theory, supported by experiments, indicates that iCO2 is likely responsible for about half of the increase. Global carbon budgeting, atmospheric data, and forest inventories indicate a historical carbon sink, and these apparent iCO2 responses are high in comparison to experiments and predictions from theory. Plant mortality and soil carbon iCO2 responses are highly uncertain. In conclusion, a range of evidence supports a positive terrestrial carbon sink in response to iCO2 , albeit with uncertain magnitude and strong suggestion of a role for additional agents of global change.

Keywords: CO2 fertilization; CO2-fertilization hypothesis; beta factor; carbon dioxide; free-air CO2 enrichment (FACE); global carbon cycle; land-atmosphere feedback; terrestrial ecosystems.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, Non-P.H.S.
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Atmosphere
  • Carbon Cycle
  • Carbon Dioxide
  • Carbon Sequestration*
  • Climate Change
  • Ecosystem*


  • Carbon Dioxide