The globally important carbon sink of intact, old-growth tropical humid forests is declining because of climate change, deforestation and degradation from fire and logging. Recovering tropical secondary and degraded forests now cover about 10% of the tropical forest area4, but how much carbon they accumulate remains uncertain. Here we quantify the aboveground carbon (AGC) sink of recovering forests across three main continuous tropical humid regions: the Amazon, Borneo and Central Africa. On the basis of satellite data products, our analysis encompasses the heterogeneous spatial and temporal patterns of growth in degraded and secondary forests, influenced by key environmental and anthropogenic drivers. In the first 20 years of recovery, regrowth rates in Borneo were up to 45% and 58% higher than in Central Africa and the Amazon, respectively. This is due to variables such as temperature, water deficit and disturbance regimes. We find that regrowing degraded and secondary forests accumulated 107 Tg C year−1 (90–130 Tg C year−1) between 1984 and 2018, counterbalancing 26% (21–34%) of carbon emissions from humid tropical forest loss during the same period. Protecting old-growth forests is therefore a priority. Furthermore, we estimate that conserving recovering degraded and secondary forests can have a feasible future carbon sink potential of 53 Tg C year−1 (44–62 Tg C year−1) across the main tropical regions studied.