Ecosystem recovery from anthropogenic disturbances, either without human intervention or assisted by ecological restoration, is increasingly occurring worldwide. As ecosystems progress through recovery, it is important to estimate any resulting deficit in biodiversity and functions. Here we use data from 3,035 sampling plots worldwide, to quantify the interim reduction of biodiversity and functions occurring during the recovery process (that is, the ‘recovery debt’). Compared with reference levels, recovering ecosystems run annual deficits of 46–51% for organism abundance, 27–33% for species diversity, 32–42% for carbon cycling and 31–41% for nitrogen cycling. Our results are consistent across biomes but not across degrading factors. Our results suggest that recovering and restored ecosystems have less abundance, diversity and cycling of carbon and nitrogen than ‘undisturbed’ ecosystems, and that even if complete recovery is reached, an interim recovery debt will accumulate. Under such circumstances, increasing the quantity of less-functional ecosystems through ecological restoration and offsetting are inadequate alternatives to ecosystem protection.