© 2015 Elsevier Ltd. More than half of global soil carbon is stored as carbonates, primarily in arid and semi-arid zones. Climate change models predict more frequent and severe rainfall events in some parts of the globe, many of which are dominated by calcareous soils. Such events trigger substantial increases in soil CO2 efflux. We hypothesised that the primary source of CO2 emissions from calcareous, arid zone soil during a single wetting event is abiotic and that soil acidification and wetting have a positive, potentially interacting, effect. We manipulated soil pH, soil moisture, and controlled soil respiration by gamma irradiating half of an 11 day incubation experiment. All manipulated experimental treatments had a rapid and enormous effect on CO2 emission. Respiration contributed ca. 5% of total CO2 efflux; the major source (carbonate buffering) varied depending on the extent of acidification and wetting. Maximum CO2 efflux occurred when pH was lowest and at intermediate matric potential. CO2 efflux was lowest at native pH when soil was air dry. Our data suggest that there may be an underestimate of soil-atmosphere carbon fluxes in arid ecosystems with calcareous soils. There is also a clear potential that these soils may become net carbon sources depending on changes in rainfall patterns, rainfall acidity, and future land management. Our findings have major implications for carbon cycling in arid zone soil and further study of carbon dynamics in these terrestrial systems at a landscape level will be required if we are to improve global climate and carbon cycling models.