Food benefit and climate warming potential of nitrogen fertilizer uses in China

Hanqin Tian, Chaoqun Lu, Jerry Melillo, Wei Ren, Yao Huang, Xiaofeng Xu, Mingliang Liu, Chi Zhang, Guangsheng Chen, Shufen Pan, Jiyuan Liu, John Reilly

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

100 Scopus citations


Chemical nitrogen (N) fertilizer has long been used to help meet the increasing food demands in China, the top N fertilizer consumer in the world. Growing concerns have been raised on the impacts of N fertilizer uses on food security and climate change, which is lack of quantification. Here we use a carbon-nitrogen (C-N) coupled ecosystem model, to quantify the food benefit and climate consequence of agronomic N addition in China over the six decades from 1949 to 2008. Results show that N fertilizer-induced crop yield and soil C sequestration had reached their peaks, while nitrous oxide (N2O) emission continued rising as N was added. Since the early 2000s, stimulation of excessive N fertilizer uses to global climate warming through N2O emission was estimated to outweigh their climate benefit in increasing CO 2 uptake. The net warming effect of N fertilizer uses, mainly centered in the North China Plain and the middle and lower reaches of Yangtze River Basin, with N2O emission completely counteracting or even exceeding, by more than a factor of 2, the CO2 sink. If we reduced the current N fertilizer level by 60% in 'over-fertilized' areas, N2O emission would substantially decrease without significantly influencing crop yield and soil C sequestration.

Original languageEnglish
Article number044020
JournalEnvironmental Research Letters
Issue number4
StatePublished - Oct 2012

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Renewable Energy, Sustainability and the Environment
  • Environmental Science (all)
  • Public Health, Environmental and Occupational Health


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