The terrestrial carbon sink accelerated during 1998–2012, concurrently with the slow warming period, but the mechanisms behind this acceleration are unclear. Here we analyse recent changes in the net land carbon sink (NLS) and its driving factors, using atmospheric inversions and terrestrial carbon models. We show that the linear trend of NLS during 1998–2012 is about 0.17 ± 0.05 Pg C yr−2 , which is three times larger than during 1980–1998 (0.05 ± 0.05 Pg C yr−2). According to terrestrial carbon model simulations, the intensification of the NLS cannot be explained by CO2 fertilization or climate change alone. We therefore use a bookkeeping model to explore the contribution of changes in land-use emissions and find that decreasing land-use emissions are the dominant cause of the intensification of the NLS during the slow warming period. This reduction of land-use emissions is due to both decreased tropical forest area loss and increased afforestation in northern temperate regions. The estimate based on atmospheric inversions shows consistently reduced land-use emissions, whereas another bookkeeping model did not reproduce such changes, probably owing to missing the signal of reduced tropical deforestation. These results highlight the importance of better constraining emissions from land-use change to understand recent trends in land carbon sinks.

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This study was supported by the Strategic Priority Research Program (A) of the Chinese Academy of Sciences (grant XDA20050101), the International Partnership Program of Chinese Academy of Sciences (grant 131C11KYSB20160061), the National Natural Science Foundation of China (41530528), and the 111 Project (B14001). We thank the TRENDY modelling group for providing the model simulation data.

Author information


  1. Key Laboratory of Alpine Ecology and Biodiversity, Institute of Tibetan Plateau Research, Chinese Academy of Sciences, Beijing, China

    • Shilong Piao
    • , Yongwen Liu
    •  & Tao Wang
  2. Center for Excellence in Tibetan Earth Science, Chinese Academy of Sciences, Beijing, China

    • Shilong Piao
    • , Yongwen Liu
    •  & Tao Wang
  3. Sino-French Institute for Earth System Science, College of Urban and Environmental Sciences, Peking University, Beijing, China

    • Shilong Piao
    • , Mengtian Huang
    • , Zhuo Liu
    • , Xuhui Wang
    • , Kai Wang
    • , Yongwen Liu
    • , Shushi Peng
    • , Tao Yan
    • , Zaichun Zhu
    •  & Donghai Wu
  4. Laboratoire des Sciences du Climat et de l’Environnement, CEA CNRS UVSQ, Gif-sur-Yvette, France

    • Xuhui Wang
    • , Philippe Ciais
    • , Ana Bastos
    •  & Yilong Wang
  5. Global Carbon Project, CSIRO Oceans and Atmosphere, Canberra, Australian Capital Territory, Australia

    • Josep G. Canadell
  6. College of Engineering, Mathematics and Physical Sciences, University of Exeter, Exeter, UK

    • Pierre Friedlingstein
  7. Woods Hole Research Center, Falmouth, MA, USA

    • Richard A. Houghton
  8. Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research, University of East Anglia, Norwich Research Park, Norwich, UK

    • Corinne Le Quéré
  9. Department of Earth and Environment, Boston University, Boston, MA, USA

    • Ranga B. Myneni
  10. Max Planck Institute for Meteorology, Hamburg, Germany

    • Julia Pongratz
  11. Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität München, Department of Geography, Munich, Germany

    • Julia Pongratz
  12. College of Life and Environmental Sciences, University of Exeter, Exeter, UK

    • Stephen Sitch


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S. Piao designed the study. M.H. and Z.L performed the analysis. S. Piao and Z.L drafted the paper. All authors contributed to the interpretation of the results and to the text.

Competing interests

The authors declare no competing interests.

Corresponding author

Correspondence to Shilong Piao.

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