Since 1988, there has been, on average, a 91% increase in dissolved organic carbon (DOC) concentrations of UK lakes and streams in the Acid Waters Monitoring Network (AWMN). Similar DOC increases have been observed in surface waters across much of Europe and North America. Much of the debate about the causes of rising DOC has, as in other studies relating to the carbon cycle, focused on factors related to climate change. Data from our peat-core experiments support an influence of climate on DOC, notably an increase in production with temperature under aerobic, and to a lesser extent anaerobic, conditions. However, we argue that climatic factors may not be the dominant drivers of DOC change. DOC solubility is suppressed by high soil water acidity and ionic strength, both of which have decreased as a result of declining sulphur deposition since the 1980s, augmented during the 1990s in the United Kingdom by a cyclical decline in sea-salt deposition. Our observational and experimental data demonstrate a clear, inverse and quantitatively important link between DOC and sulphate concentrations in soil solution. Statistical analysis of 11 AWMN lakes suggests that rising temperature, declining sulphur deposition and changing sea-salt loading can account for the majority of the observed DOC trend. This combination of evidence points to the changing chemical composition of atmospheric deposition, particularly the substantial reduction in anthropogenic sulphur emissions during the last 20 years, as a key cause of rising DOC. The implications of rising DOC export for the carbon cycle will be very different if linked primarily to decreasing acid deposition, rather than to changes in climate, suggesting that these systems may be recovering rather than destabilising.