Geological and palaeomagnetic studies indicate that ice sheets may have reached the Equator at the end of the Proterozoic eon, 800 to 550 million years ago(1,2), leading to the suggestion of a fully ice-covered 'snowball Earth' (3,4). Climate model simulations indicate that such a snowball state for the Earth depends on anomalously low atmospheric carbon dioxide concentrations(5,6), in addition to the Sun being 6 per cent fainter than it is today. However, the mechanisms producing such low carbon dioxide concentrations remain controversial(7,8). Here we assess the effect of the palaeogeographic changes preceding the Sturtian glacial period, 750 million years ago, on the long-term evolution of atmospheric carbon dioxide levels using the coupled climate(9) geochemical(10) model GEOCLIM. In our simulation, the continental break-up of Rodinia leads to an increase in runoff and hence consumption of carbon dioxide through continental weathering that decreases atmospheric carbon dioxide concentrations by 1,320 p. p. m. This indicates that tectonic changes could have triggered a progressive transition from a 'greenhouse' to an 'icehouse' climate during the Neoproterozoic era. When we combine these results with the concomitant weathering effect of the voluminous basaltic traps erupted throughout the break-up of Rodinia(11), our simulation results in a snowball glaciation.