We combined atmospheric CO2 measurements, satellite observations, and an atmospheric transport model in an inverse modeling framework to infer a key property of vegetation physiology, the light-use efficiency (LUE) of net primary production, for large geographic regions. We find the highest LUE in boreal regions and in the northern hemisphere tropics. Within boreal zones, Eurasian LUE is higher than North American LUE and has a distinctly different seasonal profile. This longitudinal asymmetry is consistent with ecological differences expected from the much greater cover of deciduous vegetation in boreal Eurasia caused by the vast Siberian forests of the deciduous conifer, Larch. Inferred LUE of the northern hemisphere tropics is also high and displays a seasonal profile consistent with variations of both cloud cover and C4 vegetation activity.