The effect of litter quality and climate on the rate of decomposition of plant tissues was examined by the measurement of mass remaining after 3 years’ exposure of 11 litter types placed at 18 forest sites across Canada. Amongst sites, mass remaining was strongly related to mean annual temperature and precipitation and amongst litter types the ratio of Klason lignin to nitrogen in the initial tissue was the most important litter quality variable. When combined into a multiple regression, mean annual temperature, mean annual precipitation and Klason lignin:nitrogen ratio explained 73% of the variance in mass remaining for all sites and tissues. Using three doubled CO2 GCM climate change scenarios for four Canadian regions, these relationships were used to predict increases in decomposition rate of 4–7% of contemporary rates (based on mass remaining after 3 years), because of increased temperature and precipitation. This increase may be partially offset by evidence that plants growing under elevated atmospheric CO2 concentrations produce litter with high lignin:nitrogen ratios which slows the rate of decomposition, but this change will be small compared to the increased rate of decomposition derived from climatic changes.