Future climate change induced by atmospheric emissions of greenhouse gases is believed to have a large impact on the global carbon cycle. Several offline studies focusing either on the marine or on the terrestrial carbon cycle highlighted such potential effects. Two recent online studies, using ocean–atmosphere general circulation models coupled to land and ocean carbon cycle models, investigated in a consistent way the feedback between the climate change and the carbon cycle. These two studies used observed anthropogenic CO2 emissions for the 1860–1995 period and IPCC scenarios for the 1995–2100 period to force the climate – carbon cycle models. The study from the Hadley Centre group showed a very large positive feedback, atmospheric CO2 reaching 980 ppmv by 2100 if future climate impacts on the carbon cycle, but only about 700 ppmv if the carbon cycle is included but assumed to be insensitive to the climate change. The IPSL coupled climate – carbon cycle model simulated a much smaller positive feedback: climate impact on the carbon cycle leads by 2100 to an addition of less than 100 ppmv in the atmosphere. Here we perform a detailed feedback analysis to show that such differences are due to two key processes that are still poorly constrained in these coupled models: first Southern Ocean circulation, which primarily controls the geochemical uptake of CO2, and second vegetation and soil carbon response to global warming. Our analytical analysis reproduces remarkably the results obtained by the fully coupled models. Also it allows us to identify that, amongst the two processes mentioned above, the latter (the land response to global warming) is the one that essentially explains the differences between the IPSL and the Hadley results.