© 2016 J. Shao et al. Climatic variables not only directly affect the interannual variability (IAV) in net ecosystem exchange of CO2 (NEE) but also indirectly drive it by changing the physiological parameters. Identifying these direct and indirect paths can reveal the underlying mechanisms of carbon (C) dynamics. In this study, we applied a path analysis using flux data from 65 sites to quantify the direct and indirect climatic effects on IAV in NEE and to evaluate the potential relationships among the climatic variables and physiological parameters that represent physiology and phenology of ecosystems. We found that the maximum photosynthetic rate was the most important factor for the IAV in gross primary productivity (GPP), which was mainly induced by the variation in vapour pressure deficit. For ecosystem respiration (RE), the most important drivers were GPP and the reference respiratory rate. The biome type regulated the direct and indirect paths, with distinctive differences between forests and non-forests, evergreen needleleaf forests and deciduous broadleaf forests, and between grasslands and croplands. Different paths were also found among wet, moist and dry ecosystems. However, the climatic variables can only partly explain the IAV in physiological parameters, suggesting that the latter may also result from other biotic and disturbance factors. In addition, the climatic variables related to NEE were not necessarily the same as those related to GPP and RE, indicating the emerging difficulty encountered when studying the IAV in NEE. Overall, our results highlight the contribution of certain physiological parameters to the IAV in C fluxes and the importance of biome type and multi-year water conditions, which should receive more attention in future experimental and modelling research.