UK set to miss 2020 environment goals

The UK is set to miss key environmental targets from air pollution and water quality to tree planting and recycling, an investigation has found.

Plastic pollution on the the River Taff in Wales. Photograph: Matthew Horwood/Getty Images Plastic pollution on the the River Taff in Wales. Photograph: Matthew Horwood/Getty Images

Air pollution

Drawing from publically available data, all of which has previously been reported by ENDS, a special report by Greenpeace Unearthed and the FT has found that the government the UK will not meet requirements to cut emissions of ammonia and PM2.5 by 2020, as set out under the EU’s National Emission Ceilings Directive and the Gothenburg Protocol.

Ammonia levels continue to rise in Northern Ireland, contributing to the UK breaching its air quality targets four years in a row, from 2014 to 2017. 

In April, the European Commission urged the UK to “make additional efforts to meet its emission reduction commitments”. DEFRA claims its Clean Air Strategy, published in January, should put the country on track to meet its 2030 air quality targets. 

READ MORE: The UK’s increasing ammonia emissions in 3 charts

Water quality

The UK, like most of the EU’s larger member states, is nowhere near meeting the targets set out in the Water Framework Directive (WFD).

Just 35% of the country’s surface water bodies - and 14% of its rivers - were classed as good or better status in 2016, with DEFRA telling ENDS this week that it has postponed the publication of updated data until spring 2020. 

Analysis carried out by ENDS found that the UK was not on track to meet the WFD’s revised deadline of 2021 for all water bodies to meet good ecological status.

Environment Agency chief executive James Bevan told MPs on the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs committee in 2017 that England would also likely miss its 2027 targets under the WFD.

READ MORE: England’s waters to remain illegally polluted beyond 2021

Tree planting

Unearthed and the FT also note that the government has pushed back a 2020 target to plant 11 million trees in England to 2022, noting that the current rate of tree planting will see that target missed by around 2 million trees. 

The Committee on Climate Change, the government’s independent climate advisers, has said forest cover in the whole of the UK must increase by six percentage points, to 19% of total land area, by 2050. This would mean a three-fold increase on current tree planting rates.

READ MORE: England’s tree planting progress in 4 charts


The Unearthed-led investigation also observes that the UK is not likely to meet any of its 2020 biodiversity targets, as set out in the international Convention of Biological Diversity. 

Government figures published in September show there are more signs of improvement in biodiversity in the long term than in the short term, with most indicators showing wildlife populations locked in decline.

READ MORE: UK biodiversity performance in five charts


Meanwhile, progress on recycling has stalled, with the UK as a whole not set to meet an EU target to recycle or reuse 50% or more of household waste by next year. 

Analysis carried out by ENDS has found that the amount of waste incinerated in England has more than doubled in the last five years, while recycling rates dropped off slightly in in 2017, the latest year for which data is available. 

READ MORE: Waste incineration levels double over five years


Although the UK remains on track to meet its overall 2020 climate action goals, it looks set to miss a goal to produce 15% of its total energy, including electricity, heat and transport, by 2020. Last year just 11% of energy was sourced from renewables. 

The European Commission said in June that the UK government’s plans to contribute to the EU’s 2030 climate targets were insufficient, saying it had not provided details on how it will meet a target to source 32% of the bloc’s energy needs from renewables or improve energy efficiency by 32.5%. 

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