Plants must achieve a balance between carbon assimilation, storage and growth, but little is known about how this is achieved. We describe evidence for the existence of regulatory mechanisms that coordinate carbon supply and use, and the likely central role of sugar signalling. We propose the existence of both ‘acute’ and ‘acclimatory’ responses to alterations in carbon supply, the latter tuning the balance between carbon supply and demand to optimise the capacity for sustained growth. A full understanding of these responses requires new, systems-level approaches that integrate information from transcriptomic, enzyme activity, metabolomic and growth analyses. We illustrate the complexity of acute and acclimatory responses by consideration of the control of starch synthesis and degradation in leaves. Finally, we consider how carbon balance may be linked to growth, and the importance of these linkages for sustained plant growth in a changing environment.