Scaling of respiration from the leaf to the canopy level currently depends on identification of physiological parameters that are tightly linked to respiration and that can readily be determined. Several recent studies have helped provide guides to predicting whole canopy respiration on the basis of foliar nitrogen (N). This approach is potentially powerful owing to the well-described patterns of allocation of N that follow interception of radiation. In the present study, we investigated the sensitivity of the N–respiration correlation to environmental and developmental factors, in order to evaluate its usage for attempts to scale respiration to the organism and ecosystem level. We studied fully expanded, 1 and 2-year-old, and current-year needles from canopies of Pinus radiata that had been treated (unthinned, thinned and thinned+fertilized treatments) in ways likely to induce a wide range of growth and respiratory responses. We examined respiration in detail during the growth period in spring and again at the end of summer, using calorespirometric methods (combined measurements of CO2 and heat rates) to determine the respiration rates , instantaneous enthalpic growth rates (RSGΔHB, a measure of the conservation of electrons in anabolic products) and the enthalpy conversion efficiency (ηH) of needles differing in age. A general linear model revealed that was positively correlated with needle N, but this correlation was strongly dependent on the season and the needle age – indicating an important physiological difference between expanding young needles and fully expanded old needles. Furthermore, the strength of the correlation between needle N and respiration was comparatively weak for the current year, expanding foliage, indicating that factors other than foliage N significantly influenced the respiration of young needles. The analysis of instantaneous growth rates revealed two general processes. Older, nonexpanding foliage showed considerable rates of enthalpic growth (increases in enthalpy) that was mainly caused by the increment of lignin during secondary growth. Secondly, canopy development appeared dynamic and to be optimized according to environmental drivers and constraints – such as light and water availability. In late spring, needle extension slowed in the upper, but not the lower canopy, because the upper canopy appeared to be affected first by the onset of drought stress in late spring. Growth rates were reduced in the upper canopy despite greater rates of respiration, indicating higher demand of ATP for the maintenance of protein and for export of sugars. Consequently, the enthalpy conversion efficiency and enthalpic N productivity (enthalpic growth per unit N) were comparatively poor indicating advanced development of needles in the upper canopy. We suggest that the growth and maintenance paradigm of respiration is, at best, only moderately useful when applied to whole trees, and is not valid at the cellular level or that of the plant organ. A different concept, namely that of respiratory efficiency, seems a more suitable way to represent respiration in carbon (C) balance models and should help provide a better mechanistic understanding of how respiration affects the C conversion efficiency of plants, and ultimately the net primary productivity of ecosystems.