Press release: 18 March 2021

UK on track to miss 2020 and 2030 legal targets for toxic pollution - government data show

The UK Government is set to miss the legal targets for four out of the five pollutants covered by a crucial piece of clean air law, according to new government data.

The National Emission Ceilings Regulations 2018 set binding emission reduction targets for a number of harmful air pollutants, for both 2020 and 2030. These pollutants significantly harm human health and the environment.

The new data show that the UK is set to miss its 2030 emissions reduction targets by 57% for sulphur dioxide (SO2), by 45% for fine particulate matter (PM2.5), by 20% for ammonia and by 20% for nitrogen oxides.

The figures also suggest that the UK has missed its 2020 emissions reduction targets by 12% for PM2.5 and 7% for ammonia, although final emissions data for 2020 will be released in 2022.

Based on this discovery, the law now requires that the government review its strategy for tackling these pollutants – currently set out in the UK’s 2019 Clean Air Strategy – within 18 months.

Environmental lawyers say that if it fails to review the strategy, the government could face legal challenge.

Katie Nield, lawyer at environmental law charity ClientEarth, said: “Once again, the government is falling short of its legal obligations to reduce pollution. Ministers have been lauding the UK’s Clean Air Strategy as ‘world-leading’ but they are not living up to it.

“Now the government is under a legal obligation to revamp its strategy to tackle major emissions sources like road transport but also agriculture and domestic heating – people’s health is on the line.

“They are so far off track that a serious rethink is needed. The government should not have to be dragged to the courts yet again to force it to live up to legal commitments to clean up the air.”

ClientEarth has already taken Germany to court for failing to reduce these pollutants.


Notes to editors:

View the data here (Tables 9-5 and 9-6 from page 338 provide a summary).

The National Emission Ceilings Regulations 2018 is one of the key pieces of air pollution law in the UK. It governs emissions of harmful pollutants across various sectors, including transport, industry and agriculture. These are ammonia (NH3), fine particulate matter (PM2.5), sulphur dioxide (SO2), nitrogen oxides (NOx) and volatile organic compounds (VOCs).

According to the Clean Air Strategy, the key sources of each pollutant are as follows:

  • PM5 – domestic wood and coal burning, road transport, industrial combustion and processes
  • NH3 – agriculture (during storage and spreading of manure, slurry and fertiliser)
  • NOx – road transport, energy generation, domestic and industrial combustion
  • SO2 – energy generation, industrial and domestic burning
  • NMVOCs – industrial processes, household products, agriculture

Air pollution is recognised by the World Health Organization (WHO) as the biggest environmental health risk in the world. It also tops the list of environment health hazards in the UK and is estimated to cause the equivalent of up to 40,000 early deaths a year here. Air pollution also reduces people’s quality of life – studies have linked it to premature births, cancer, asthma, COPD, heart disease and strokes, and there is increasing evidence of potential links to dementia and infertility.

ClientEarth has previously brought and won three cases before the UK courts – on these three occasions, the courts have found the UK Government to be breaching the law on nitrogen dioxide pollution and have ordered ministers to produce new, compliant air quality plans to tackle the problem.

In December 2020, a coroner confirmed that the UK’s illegal levels of air pollution contributed to the death of 9-year-old Ella Adoo-Kissi-Debrah in 2013.

Earlier this year, an EU court ruled that the UK has “systematically and persistently” exceeded legal limits for nitrogen dioxide since 2010.

About ClientEarth

ClientEarth is a charity that uses the power of the law to protect people and the planet. We are international lawyers finding practical solutions for the world’s biggest environmental challenges. We are fighting climate change, protecting oceans and wildlife, making forest governance stronger, greening energy, making business more responsible and pushing for government transparency. We believe the law is a tool for positive change. From our offices in London, Brussels, Warsaw, Berlin and Beijing, we work on laws throughout their lifetime, from the earliest stages to implementation. And when those laws are broken, we go to court to enforce them.