Many inland waters exhibit complete or partial desiccation, or have vanished due to global change, exposing sediments to the atmosphere. Yet, data on carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions from these sediments are too scarce to upscale emissions for global estimates or to understand their fundamental drivers. Here, we present the results of a global survey covering 196 dry inland waters across diverse ecosystem types and climate zones. We show that their CO2 emissions share fundamental drivers and constitute a substantial fraction of the carbon cycled by inland waters. CO2 emissions were consistent across ecosystem types and climate zones, with local characteristics explaining much of the variability. Accounting for such emissions increases global estimates of carbon emissions from inland waters by 6% (~0.12 Pg C y−1). Our results indicate that emissions from dry inland waters represent a significant and likely increasing component of the inland waters carbon cycle.