The objective of the European Terrestrial Ecosystem Modelling Activity (ETEMA) was to address some of the major challenges in developing generalized models to examine responses of natural and seminatural ecosystems to environmental change at the regional to European scale. The approach described herein was to break down the totality of ecosystem functioning into its key components, each with its characteristic spatial and temporal scales. A conceptual framework was developed describing the configuration of these components as modules within a generalized simulation model. The framework describes the key inputs, outputs and state variables, their spatial and temporal contexts, and information flows between modules. The ‘backbone’ of the model is a system of nested timing loops corresponding to the disparate time scales at which different ecosystem processes occur. The framework is a theoretical construct into which ecosystem models at levels of complexity ranging from the very general to the highly detailed can be mapped, and thus provides a guide for development of models for novel, particularly regional-scale, applications. A number of subsystem studies of the major components of ecosystem functioning, i.e. modules of the conceptual framework, are briefly introduced herein. The general aim of the subsystem studies was to identify the key alternative formulations (as opposed to minor variants) and test these against observational data. The various subsystem studies concern planetary boundary layer–ecosystem interactions, ecosystem CO2 and H2O fluxes, vegetation physiology and phenology, biogeography and vegetation dynamics, detritus and SOM dynamics, soil moisture and human and natural disturbances and, as individual papers, they complete this special ETEMA issue.