Semiconductor photocatalysis could be an effective means to combat air pollution, especially nitrogen oxides, which can be mineralized to nitrate. However, the reaction typically shows poor selectivity, releasing a number of unwanted and possibly toxic intermediates such as nitrogen dioxide. Up to now, the underlying principles that lead to this poor selectivity were not understood so a knowledge-based catalyst design for more selective materials was impossible. Herein, we present strong evidence for the slow oxygen reduction being one the causes, as the competing back-reduction of nitrate leads to the release of nitrogen dioxide. Consequently, engineering the photocatalyst for a better oxygen reduction efficiency should also increase the nitrate selectivity.