Using x-ray photoelectron spectroscopy we observe the breaking of the strong interatomic bond in molecular CO at low temperature on a stepped Cu surface. Since the electronic structure of Cu does not allow for the splitting of CO at such low temperatures it suggests that there may be a less obvious pathway for the process. Through x-ray photoelectron spectroscopy we can clearly identify products associated with the dissociation of CO and the subsequent formation of stable graphitic carbon on the surface. However, the dissociation of CO can be inhibited when the stepped Cu surface is kept clean from surface carbon. These observations imply that the reaction is driven by the presence of small amounts of weakly bound carbon at the surface. Density-functional theory calculations confirm that carbon atoms on a stepped Cu surface indeed are the preferred adsorption sites for CO, which increases the stabilization of CO on the surface and weakens the C-O bond. This results in the breaking of the C-O bond at the step edge via the Boudouard reaction (2CO(ads) -> C-ads + CO2) with a barrier of 0.71 eV.