Abstract

The terrestrial biosphere can release or absorb the greenhouse gases, carbon dioxide (CO2), methane (CH4) and nitrous oxide (N2O), and therefore has an important role in regulating atmospheric composition and climate1. Anthropogenic activities such as land-use change, agriculture and waste management have altered terrestrial biogenic greenhouse gas fluxes, and the resulting increases in methane and nitrous oxide emissions in particular can contribute to climate change2,3. The terrestrial biogenic fluxes of individual greenhouse gases have been studied extensively4,5,6, but the net biogenic greenhouse gas balance resulting from anthropogenic activities and its effect on the climate system remains uncertain. Here we use bottom-up (inventory, statistical extrapolation of local flux measurements, and process-based modelling) and top-down (atmospheric inversions) approaches to quantify the global net biogenic greenhouse gas balance between 1981 and 2010 resulting from anthropogenic activities and its effect on the climate system. We find that the cumulative warming capacity of concurrent biogenic methane and nitrous oxide emissions is a factor of about two larger than the cooling effect resulting from the global land carbon dioxide uptake from 2001 to 2010. This results in a net positive cumulative impact of the three greenhouse gases on the planetary energy budget, with a best estimate (in petagrams of CO2 equivalent per year) of 3.9 ± 3.8 (top down) and 5.4 ± 4.8 (bottom up) based on the GWP100 metric (global warming potential on a 100-year time horizon). Our findings suggest that a reduction in agricultural methane and nitrous oxide emissions, particularly in Southern Asia, may help mitigate climate change.

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Acknowledgements

This research was supported partially by NASA grants (NNX08AL73G, NNX14AO73G, NNX10AU06G, NNX11AD47G, NNG04GM39C) and NSF grants (AGS 1243232, AGS-1243220, CNH1210360). J.G.C. was supported by the Australian Climate Change Science Program. E.S. was supported by the NOAA Climate Program Office (award NA13OAR4310059). C.R.S. was supported by NASA grants (NNX12AP74G, NNX10AG01A, NNX11AO08A). K.R.G. was supported by NSF CAREER (AGS-0846358). R.G.P. was supported by a NASA Upper Atmosphere Research Program AGAGE grant (NNX11AF17G to MIT). This study contributes to the Non-CO2 Greenhouse Gases Synthesis of NACP (North American Carbon Program), and the Global Carbon Project (a joint project of IGBP, IHDP, WCRP and Diversitas).

Author information

Affiliations

  1. International Center for Climate and Global Change Research, School of Forestry and Wildlife Sciences, Auburn University, Auburn, Alabama 36849, USA

    • Hanqin Tian
    • , Chaoqun Lu
    • , Bowen Zhang
    • , Jia Yang
    •  & Shufen Pan
  2. Department of Ecology, Evolution, and Organismal Biology, Iowa State University, Iowa 50011, USA

    • Chaoqun Lu
  3. Laboratoire des Sciences du Climat et de l’Environnement, 91191 Gif sur Yvette, France

    • Philippe Ciais
    • , Philippe Bousquet
    •  & Marielle Saunois
  4. Department of Global Ecology, Carnegie Institution for Science, Stanford, California 94305, USA

    • Anna M. Michalak
  5. Global Carbon Project, CSIRO Oceans and Atmosphere Research, GPO Box 3023, Canberra, Australian Capital Territory 2601, Australia

    • Josep G. Canadell
  6. Department of Environmental Sciences, Emory University, Atlanta, Georgia 30322, USA

    • Eri Saikawa
  7. School of Earth Sciences and Environmental Sustainability, Northern Arizona University, Flagstaff, Arizona 86011, USA

    • Deborah N. Huntzinger
    •  & Christopher R. Schwalm
  8. School of Life Sciences, Arizona State University, Tempe, Arizona 85287, USA

    • Kevin R. Gurney
  9. College of Life and Environmental Sciences, University of Exeter, Exeter EX4 4RJ, UK

    • Stephen Sitch
  10. NOAA Earth System Research Laboratory, Global Monitoring Division, Boulder, Colorado 80305, USA

    • Lori Bruhwiler
    •  & Edward Dlugokencky
  11. Environmental Science Division, Oak Ridge National Laboratory, Oak Ridge, Tennessee 37831, USA

    • Guangsheng Chen
  12. College of Engineering, Mathematics and Physical Sciences, University of Exeter, Exeter EX4 4QF, UK

    • Pierre Friedlingstein
  13. The Ecosystems Center, Marine Biological Laboratory, Woods Hole, Massachusetts 02543, USA

    • Jerry Melillo
  14. Institute of Ecosystems and Department of Ecology, Montana State University, Bozeman, Montana 59717, USA

    • Benjamin Poulter
  15. Center for Global Change Science, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cambridge, Massachusetts 02139, USA

    • Ronald Prinn
  16. Woods Hole Research Center, Falmouth, Massachusetts 02540, USA

    • Christopher R. Schwalm
  17. Department of Earth and Planetary Science, Harvard University, 29 Oxford Street, Cambridge, Massachusetts 02138, USA

    • Steven C. Wofsy

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Contributions

H.T. initiated this research and was responsible for the integrity of the work as a whole. H.T. and C.L. performed analysis, calculations and drafted the manuscript. P.C., A.M.M. and J.G.C. contributed to data synthesis and manuscript development. B.Z., J.Y., G.C. and S.P. contributed to data collection and analysis. E.S., D.N.H., K.R.G., S.S., P.B., L.B., E.D., P. F., J.M., B.P., R.G.P., M.S., C.R.S. and S.C.W. contributed to data provision, data processing, or interpretation. All authors discussed and commented on the manuscript.

Competing interests

The authors declare no competing financial interests.

Corresponding author

Correspondence to Hanqin Tian.

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https://doi.org/10.1038/nature16946

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