The global distribution of the optimum air temperature for ecosystem-level gross primary productivity ([Formula: see text]) is poorly understood, despite its importance for ecosystem carbon uptake under future warming. We provide empirical evidence for the existence of such an optimum, using measurements of in situ eddy covariance and satellite-derived proxies, and report its global distribution. [Formula: see text] is consistently lower than the physiological optimum temperature of leaf-level photosynthetic capacity, which typically exceeds 30 °C. The global average [Formula: see text] is estimated to be 23 ± 6 °C, with warmer regions having higher [Formula: see text] values than colder regions. In tropical forests in particular, [Formula: see text] is close to growing-season air temperature and is projected to fall below it under all scenarios of future climate, suggesting a limited safe operating space for these ecosystems under future warming.