Our understanding of Earth's carbon climate system depends critically upon interactions between rising atmospheric CO2, changing land use, and nitrogen limitation on vegetation growth. Using a global land model, we show how these factors interact locally to generate the global land carbon sink over the past 200 years. Nitrogen constraints were alleviated by N2 fixation in the tropics and by atmospheric nitrogen deposition in extratropical regions. Nonlinear interactions between land use change and land carbon and nitrogen cycling originated from three major mechanisms: (i) a sink foregone that would have occurred without land use conversion; (ii) an accelerated response of secondary vegetation to CO2 and nitrogen, and (iii) a compounded clearance loss from deforestation. Over time, these nonlinear effects have become increasingly important and reduce the present-day net carbon sink by ~40% or 0.4 PgC yr−1.