A carbon budget for the northwest European continental shelf seas (NWES) was synthesized using available estimates for coastal, pelagic and benthic carbon stocks and flows. Key uncertainties were identified and the effect of future impacts on the carbon budget were assessed. The water of the shelf seas contains between 210 and 230 Tmol of carbon and absorbs between 1.3 and 3.3 Tmol from the atmosphere annually. Off-shelf transport and burial in the sediments account for 60–100 and 0–40% of carbon outputs from the NWES, respectively. Both of these fluxes remain poorly constrained by observations and resolving their magnitudes and relative importance is a key research priority. Pelagic and benthic carbon stocks are dominated by inorganic carbon. Shelf sediments contain the largest stock of carbon, with between 520 and 1600 Tmol stored in the top 0.1 m of the sea bed. Coastal habitats such as salt marshes and mud flats contain large amounts of carbon per unit area but their total carbon stocks are small compared to pelagic and benthic stocks due to their smaller spatial extent. The large pelagic stock of carbon will continue to increase due to the rising concentration of atmospheric CO2, with associated pH decrease. Pelagic carbon stocks and flows are also likely to be significantly affected by increasing acidity and temperature, and circulation changes but the net impact is uncertain. Benthic carbon stocks will be affected by increasing temperature and acidity, and decreasing oxygen concentrations, although the net impact of these interrelated changes on carbon stocks is uncertain and a major knowledge gap. The impact of bottom trawling on benthic carbon stocks is unique amongst the impacts we consider in that it is widespread and also directly manageable, although its net effect on the carbon budget is uncertain. Coastal habitats are vulnerable to sea level rise and are strongly impacted by management decisions. Local, national and regional actions have the potential to protect or enhance carbon storage, but ultimately global governance, via controls on emissions, has the greatest potential to influence the long-term fate of carbon stocks in the northwestern European continental shelf.