Biogenic volatile organic compounds (BVOCs) play an important role in atmospheric chemistry and the carbon cycle. Isoprene is quantitatively the most important of the non-methane BVOCs (NMBVOCs), with an annual emission of about 400–600 TgC; about 90% of this is emitted by terrestrial plants. Incorporating a mechanistic treatment of isoprene emissions within land-surface schemes has recently become a focus for the modelling community, the aim being to quantify the potential magnitude of associated climate feedbacks. However, these efforts are hampered by major uncertainties about why plants emit isoprene and the relative importance of different environmental controls on isoprene emission. The availability and reliability of observations of isoprene fluxes from different types of vegetation is limited, and this also imposes constraints on model development. Nevertheless, progress is being made towards the development of mechanistic models of isoprene emission which, in conjunction with atmospheric chemistry models, will ultimately allow improved quantification of the feedbacks between the terrestrial biosphere and climate under past and future climate states.