It is sometimes assumed that because increases in atmospheric CO2 concentration usually enhance water use efficiency per unit leaf area, there will be a tendency for plants to show greater drought tolerance as well as increased biomass in the future. A critical examination of the responses to elevated CO2 in three temperate tree species shows that this assumption might be incorrect in the case of two of them. Both beech (Fagus sylvatica L.) and birch (Betula pubescens Ehrh.) display minimal stomatal closing responses to elevated CO2, and in the case of F. sylvatica the stomatal control of transpiration per unit leaf area appears to be unable to compensate for the greater development of leaf area. By contrast, the stomata of oak (Quercus robur L.) close appreciably in elevated CO2, to an extent which might be sufficient to compensate for an increase in total leaf area. A simple model for the controls on water supply and consumption for the whole tree suggests that in F. sylvatica the potential height attainment for a given sapwood area might decrease as the atmospheric CO2 concentration rises. The conclusions drawn from experimental data and from modelling are supported by field observations made in the UK in 1995, when the three species responded very differently to severe drought. We suggest that the progressive increase in the concentration of atmospheric CO2 over the past 200 yr might have accentuated differences in drought sensitivity between these species.