Whether climate change will turn cold biomes from large long-term carbon sinks into sources is hotly debated because of the great potential for ecosystem-mediated feedbacks to global climate. Critical are the direction, magnitude and generality of climate responses of plant litter decomposition. Here, we present the first quantitative analysis of the major climate-change-related drivers of litter decomposition rates in cold northern biomes worldwide. Leaf litters collected from the predominant species in 33 global change manipulation experiments in circum-arctic-alpine ecosystems were incubated simultaneously in two contrasting arctic life zones. We demonstrate that longer-term, large-scale changes to leaf litter decomposition will be driven primarily by both direct warming effects and concomitant shifts in plant growth form composition, with a much smaller role for changes in litter quality within species. Specifically, the ongoing warming-induced expansion of shrubs with recalcitrant leaf litter across cold biomes would constitute a negative feedback to global warming. Depending on the strength of other (previously reported) positive feedbacks of shrub expansion on soil carbon turnover, this may partly counteract direct warming enhancement of litter decomposition.