Evapotranspiration is an important component of the water and energy balance. It is dependent on climate. Precipitation, solar radiation, temperature, humidity, and wind all contribute to the rate of evapotranspiration. In this study, the temporal trends of reference evapotranspiration (ETref) and four main ETref drivers, namely, mean air temperature (Ta), wind speed (u2), net radiation (Rn) and actual vapour pressure (ea) from 1970 to 2009, were calculated based on 75 meteorological stations on the Tibetan Plateau. The results showed that the ETref on the Tibetan Plateau decreased on average by 0.6909 mm a-1a-1 from 1970 to 2009. Ta and ea showed an increasing trend, whereas u2 and Rn exhibited a decreasing trend. To explore the underlying causes of the ETref variation, an attribution analysis was performed to quantify the contribution of Ta, u2, Rn and ea, which showed that the changes in u2, Rn and ea produced the negative effect, whereas Ta produced the positive effect on ETref rates. The changes in u2 were found to produce the largest decrease (−0.7 mm) in ETref, followed by ea (−0.4 mm) and Rn (−0.1 mm). Although the significant increase in Ta had a large positive effect (0.51 mm) on ETref rates, changes in the other three variables each reduced ETref rates, resulting in an overall negative trend in ETref. Copyright © 2012 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd.