Bringing together leaf trait data spanning 2,548 species and 175 sites we describe, for the first time at global scale, a universal spectrum of leaf economics consisting of key chemical, structural and physiological properties. The spectrum runs from quick to slow return on investments of nutrients and dry mass in leaves, and operates largely independently of growth form, plant functional type or biome. Categories along the spectrum would, in general, describe leaf economic variation at the global scale better than plant functional types, because functional types overlap substantially in their leaf traits. Overall, modulation of leaf traits and trait relationships by climate is surprisingly modest, although some striking and significant patterns can be seen. Reliable quantification of the leaf economics spectrum and its interaction with climate will prove valuable for modelling nutrient fluxes and vegetation boundaries under changing land-use and climate.