The decomposition of senesced plant litter represents an important intermediate step in the cycling of nutrients between above- and below-ground systems. The rate of decomposition of plant litter is sensitive to fluctuations in a number of parameters, including environmental conditions, and particularly to changes in the quality of the litter. Increased C: N ratios of litter are thought to be one possible consequence of growth of plants under elevated [CO2]. This response is likely to reduce the rate of decomposition of the litter.
Evidence from the growth of plants in both pot and field studies suggests that growth of C3 plants in elevated atmospheric [CO2] (600–700 μmol mol–1) may lead to a significant increase in either/both the C: N and the lignin: N ratios of litter. Short-term decomposition of litter from plants showing this response in elevated [CO2] has confirmed that decomposition occurs at a significantly lower rate. The limited studies of both the response of C4 plants to elevated [CO2] and the subsequent degradability of the senescent litter suggest that no differences in litter quality or degradability occur. In terms of litter quality the response of plants therefore appears to be dependent upon photosynthetic type; the C:N and lignin:N ratios of litter from C3 plants exposed to elevated [CO2] are increased, leading to lower degradation rates, while the nutrient ratios and degradation rates of litter from C4 plants grown in elevated [CO2] remain unchanged.
To date, very few ecosystem studies of decomposition have been carried out. Further work is required at the ecosystem level to determine whether the effects observed in laboratory, pot and field studies are also observed in long-term, complex ecosystem studies. Clearly if these results are repeated at the ecosystem level then significant changes in the cycling of C and N in important terrestrial ecosystems may occur as a results of elevated [CO2].