The use of fossil fuels and fertilizers has increased the amount of biologically reactive nitrogen in the atmosphere over the past century. As a consequence, forests in industrialized regions have experienced greater rates of nitrogen deposition in recent decades. This unintended fertilization has stimulated forest growth, but has also affected soil microbial activity, and thus the recycling of soil carbon and nutrients. A meta-analysis suggests that nitrogen deposition impedes organic matter decomposition, and thus stimulates carbon sequestration, in temperate forest soils where nitrogen is not limiting microbial growth. The concomitant reduction in soil carbon emissions is substantial, and equivalent in magnitude to the amount of carbon taken up by trees owing to nitrogen fertilization. As atmospheric nitrogen levels continue to rise, increased nitrogen deposition could spread to older, more weathered soils, as found in the tropics; however, soil carbon cycling in tropical forests cannot yet be assessed. © 2010 Macmillan Publishers Limited.