Fossil fuel power generation and other industrial emissions of carbon dioxide are a threat to global climate1, yet many economies will remain reliant on these technologies for several decades2. Carbon dioxide capture and storage (CCS) in deep geological formations provides an effective option to remove these emissions from the climate system3. In many regions storage reservoirs are located offshore4, 5, over a kilometre or more below societally important shelf seas6. Therefore, concerns about the possibility of leakage7, 8 and potential environmental impacts, along with economics, have contributed to delaying development of operational CCS. Here we investigate the detectability and environmental impact of leakage from a controlled sub-seabed release of CO2. We show that the biological impact and footprint of this small leak analogue (<1 tonne CO2 d−1) is confined to a few tens of metres. Migration of CO2 through the shallow seabed is influenced by near-surface sediment structure, and by dissolution and re-precipitation of calcium carbonate naturally present in sediments. Results reported here advance the understanding of environmental sensitivity to leakage and identify appropriate monitoring strategies for full-scale carbon storage operations.