At moderate temperatures (��� 70 C), thermal reduction of graphene oxide is inefficient and after its synthesis the material enters in a metastable state. Here, first-principles and statistical calculations are used to investigate both the low-temperature processes leading to decomposition of graphene oxide and the role of ageing on the structure and stability of this material. Our study shows that the key factor underlying the stability of graphene oxide is the tendency of the oxygen functionalities to agglomerate and form highly oxidized domains surrounded by areas of pristine graphene. Within the agglomerates of functional groups, the primary decomposition reactions are hindered by both geometrical and energetic factors. The number of reacting sites is reduced by the occurrence of local order in the oxidized domains, and due to the close packing of the oxygen functionalities, the decomposition reactions become-on average-endothermic by more than 0.6 eV. �� 2013 Macmillan Publishers Limited.