Skip to main content

Elevated CO2, litter chemistry, and decomposition: a synthesis


The results of published and unpublished experiments investigating the impacts of elevated [CO2] on the chemistry of leaf litter and decomposition of plant tissues are summarized. The data do not support the hypothesis that changes in leaf litter chemistry often associated with growing plants under elevated [CO2] have an impact on decomposition processes. A meta-analysis of data from naturally senesced leaves in field experiments showed that the nitrogen (N) concentration in leaf litter was 7.1% lower in elevated [CO2] compared to that in ambient [CO2]. This statistically significant difference was: (1) usually not significant in individual experiments, (2) much less than that often observed in green leaves, and (3) less in leaves with an N concentration indicative of complete N resorption. Under ideal conditions, the efficiency with which N is resorbed during leaf senescence was found not to be altered by CO2 enrichment, but other environmental influences on resorption inevitably increase the variability in litter N concentration. Nevertheless, the small but consistent decline in leaf litter N concentration in many experiments, coupled with a 6.5% increase in lignin concentration, would be predicted to result in a slower decomposition rate in CO2-enriched litter. However, across the assembled data base, neither mass loss nor respiration rates from litter produced in elevated [CO2] showed any consistent pattern or differences from litter grown in ambient [CO2]. The effects of [CO2] on litter chemistry or decomposition were usually smallest under experimental conditions similar to natural field conditions, including open-field exposure, plants free-rooted in the ground, and complete senescence. It is concluded that any changes in decomposition rates resulting from exposure of plants to elevated [CO2] are small when compared to other potential impacts of elevated [CO2] on carbon and N cycling. Reasons for experimental differences are considered, and recommendations for the design and execution of decomposition experiments using materials from CO2-enrichment experiments are outlined.

This is a preview of subscription content, access via your institution.

Author information

Authors and Affiliations


Additional information

Electronic Publication

Rights and permissions

Reprints and Permissions

About this article

Cite this article

Norby, R., Cotrufo, M., Ineson, P. et al. Elevated CO2, litter chemistry, and decomposition: a synthesis. Oecologia 127, 153–165 (2001).

Download citation

  • Received:

  • Accepted:

  • Published:

  • Issue Date:

  • DOI: