Ecosystem respiration is the biotic conversion of organic carbon to carbon dioxide by all of the organisms in an ecosystem, including both consumers and primary producers. Respiration exhibits an exponential temperature dependence at the subcellular and individual levels, but at the ecosystem level respiration can be modified by many variables including community abundance and biomass, which vary substantially among ecosystems. Despite its importance for predicting the responses of the biosphere to climate change, it is as yet unknown whether the temperature dependence of ecosystem respiration varies systematically between aquatic and terrestrial environments. Here we use the largest database of respiratory measurements yet compiled to show that the sensitivity of ecosystem respiration to seasonal changes in temperature is remarkably similar for diverse environments encompassing lakes, rivers, estuaries, the open ocean and forested and non-forested terrestrial ecosystems, with an average activation energy similar to that of the respiratory complex (approximately 0.65 electronvolts (eV)). By contrast, annual ecosystem respiration shows a substantially greater temperature dependence across aquatic (approximately 0.65 eV) versus terrestrial ecosystems (approximately 0.32 eV) that span broad geographic gradients in temperature. Using a model derived from metabolic theory, these findings can be reconciled by similarities in the biochemical kinetics of metabolism at the subcellular level, and fundamental differences in the importance of other variables besides temperature-such as primary productivity and allochthonous carbon inputs-on the structure of aquatic and terrestrial biota at the community level.