We explore the extent to which a simple mechanistic model of short-term plant carbon (C) dynamics can account for a number of generally observed plant phenomena. For an individual, fully expanded leaf, the model predicts that the fast-turnover labile C, starch and protein pools are driven into an approximate or moving steady state that is proportional to the average leaf absorbed irradiance on a time-scale of days to weeks, even under realistic variable light conditions, in qualitative agreement with general patterns of leaf acclimation to light observed both temporally within the growing season and spatially within plant canopies. When the fast-turnover pools throughout the whole plant (including stems and roots) also follow this moving steady state, the model predicts that the time-averaged whole-plant net primary productivity is proportional to the time-averaged canopy absorbed irradiance and to gross canopy photosynthesis, and thus suggests a mechanistic explanation of the observed approximate constancy of plant light-use efficiency (LUE) and carbon-use efficiency. Under variable light conditions, the fast-turnover pool sizes and the LUE are predicted to depend negatively on the coefficient of variation of irradiance. We also show that the LUE has a maximum with respect to the fraction of leaf labile C allocated to leaf protein synthesis (alp), reflecting a trade-off between leaf photosynthesis and leaf respiration. The optimal value of alp is predicted to decrease at elevated [CO2]a, suggesting an adaptive interpretation of leaf acclimation to CO2. The model therefore brings together a number of empirical observations within a common mechanistic framework.