Environmental science delivers benefits across the UK

Earth showing the UK at night from the International Space Station (ISS) with France and Holland in the foreground.

Environmental science benefits every UK region, driving our journey to net zero while spreading prosperity, building resilience and protecting the environment.

Local sustainable, clean and inclusive economic growth, prosperity and low-carbon green recovery are key priorities for the government and devolved nations.

The Natural Environment Research Council’s (NERC) investments support these aims, delivering impact for all parts of the UK. In addition, our investments develop clusters of regional capacity across the country, contributing to local economic growth and job creation.

In this way we spread prosperity, levelling up the UK economy and unlocking environmentally sustainable investment, including in key sectors such as energy and space.

About the research

NERC invests in outstanding infrastructure, people, research and innovation across the UK. Our funding reflects the diversity across the nations and regions of the UK, with around 70% of our funding in the last decade invested outside the greater south-east.

Our scientists work with other experts, such as engineers, economists, and innovators to bring environmental solutions to where they are needed. This includes working with industries such as aquaculture, renewable energy, and utilities, benefitting local economies and communities.

Through our research centres and partners we deliver national capabilities for the UK in critical and sensitive areas of environmental science, such as geological records and marine resources.

From helping farmers boost their productivity while enhancing biodiversity to building climate resilience in our cities, NERC research provides the basis for effective management of the varied landscapes of the UK.

Impacts of the research

UK-wide impacts

Our broader, nationally-focused research benefits local economies and improves quality of life too.

Climate solutions: NERC science drives the UK’s journey to net zero by providing the evidence needed for unleashing clean growth opportunities and adapting to climate extremes.

Cleaning up our air: NERC science equips government, business and wider society to take evidence-based action to tackle air pollution. The benefits, lives saved, better health, lower costs, a cleaner environment, are worth an estimated £1.2 billion per year.

Protecting biodiversity: NERC science enables government, business and society to protect nature effectively, which strengthens our economic security, propels our journey to net zero, and benefits our health and wellbeing.

Harnessing offshore wind energy: NERC science has enabled the UK to lead the world in offshore wind energy and enjoy its benefits, clean growth, job creation and better energy security, while protecting key marine species and habitats.


New biodiversity policies save £200,000 and benefit pollinators and the public in Edinburgh

Adoption of simple, cost-effective biodiversity-boosting policies by City of Edinburgh Council has:

  • saved the council an estimated £200,000
  • increased the diversity and abundance of pollinators in urban areas
  • created more urban meadow spaces for the public to enjoy

The policies are based on first-of-its-kind research comparing pollinators in urban, agricultural and nature reserve habitats funded by:

  • NERC
  • the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC)
  • the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra)

The changes include less frequent grass cutting to allow wildflowers to grow and the creation of more than 70 wildflower meadows in Edinburgh parkland. The project findings are influencing urban biodiversity strategies both nationally, and internationally including France, the Netherlands and Brazil.


Pioneering scheme increases economic viability of farming in Wales and benefits the environment

The Welsh Government’s adoption of an innovative £250 million per year land management scheme known as Glastir has helped farms:

  • become more economically viable
  • improve water quality
  • reduce flood risk
  • enhance biodiversity
  • protect landscapes
  • improve access to the countryside

Early surveys indicate that the Glastir efficiency grant boosted the economic viability of more than three-quarters of recipient farms, and the wider scheme has helped over half involved to take action to combat climate change.

Collaborative research by NERC and BBSRC backed scientists at Queen Mary University and the NERC-funded UK Centre for Ecology and Hydrology prompted the pioneering initiative in 2012. It enabled Wales to become the first European country to target government subsidies by location to deliver the largest environmental and economic benefits.

Northern Ireland

Sustainable geotourism boosts Northern Ireland economy by £500 million per year

Three world-famous geological features in Northern Ireland are delivering multimillion-pound economic, environmental and societal benefits thanks to input from NERC-funded geoscientists.

The Giant’s Causeway and Causeway Coast World Heritage Site, the Cuilcagh Lakelands United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) Global Geopark, and the Mourne Gullion Strangford Aspiring UNESCO Global Geopark attract more than two million visitors a year from over 160 countries. They generate an estimated £500 million a year and numerous jobs in the region. Both sites also deliver educational and cultural benefits, and help the UK meet the 2030 UN sustainable development goals.

The Geological Survey of Northern Ireland (GSNI), which is staffed by NERC British Geological Survey (BGS) scientists, has played a key role. GSNI has developed and promoted sustainable geology-based tourism at the three UNESCO-designated sites over the past two decades.


Carbon budgeting tool prompts multimillion-pound investment in climate change action in the north-west

Regions across the UK are setting and delivering more ambitious climate change strategies thanks to carbon budgeting tools which are helping governments and businesses to play their part in global climate goals.

Greater Manchester Combined Authority, for example, slashed its previous goal of 80% carbon reduction by 2050 in favour of zero emissions by 2038 as a result. This changed thinking prompted major public and commercial investment in the region, including £65 million in new climate change policies and a £63.5 million commitment from Electricity North West to carbon reduction.

The carbon budgeting tools are based on Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC), NERC and Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC)-funded expertise at the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change. The tools help translate global carbon budgets to local scales and help governments and businesses to develop policies in line with the 2015 Paris climate accords.


New natural flood defence techniques protect Northumberland village at 10% of the cost

A Northumberland village that flooded seven times in eight years has been flood-free since 2010 thanks to the introduction of innovative natural flood management techniques.

The pioneering ‘soft-engineered’ scheme at Belford, based on NERC, EPSRC and Environment Agency funded research, used ponds and ‘leaky’ dams to divert, store and slow flood water. The project cost 90% less than the alternative: a £2.1 million dam.

The scheme’s success paved the way for investment of more than £15 million in natural flood defence initiatives across the country. These projects also offer additional benefits in terms of greater biodiversity, improved soil and water quality and increased carbon capture.

Yorkshire and the Humber

Geoscience enables world’s largest offshore wind farm off the North Yorkshire coast, supporting energy security and clean growth

Unique knowledge and understanding of seabed geology and hazards developed over decades by NERC’s BGS has played a pivotal role in the rapid growth of the world’s biggest offshore wind energy industry.

BGS is working with SSE Renewables and Equinor on the flagship Dogger Bank Wind Farm off the Yorkshire coast, for example, which will be the world’s biggest offshore wind farm.

Estimated to meet 5% of UK electricity needs, this will be another key component in a sector that has expanded at incredible speed over the last decade. It has created 11,000 jobs in coastal communities across the country, generating millions of pounds in tax revenues and helping the UK take significant strides to meeting its commitment to cut its carbon emissions to net zero by 2050.

West and east Midlands

Unique initiative delivers £360 million in energy investment, and puts the Midlands on the road to net zero

As the UK’s first region-based energy research acceleration hub, the Midlands Energy Research Accelerator (ERA) has delivered £110 million in industrial co-investment, catalysed £250 million in follow-on funding and helped to shape energy strategy. Benchmarking suggests that the level of funding catalysed could result, over a longer term, in a net gross value added of £3 billion and 10,000 new jobs.

ERA was established in 2016 through a £60 million capital investment from Innovate UK. It is a consortium of eight Midlands-based universities and the NERC BGS, and brings together 1,400 researchers from across the region. ERA’s unique place-based design enables the development of long-term partnerships between regionally based researchers, businesses and civic organisations.

East Midlands

Environmental satellite data delivers multimillion-pound boost for east Midlands businesses

Jobs created, order books bolstered, new businesses established. Over 130 firms have secured benefits worth millions thanks to NERC-backed environmental research at the University of Leicester harnessing satellite data to tackle real-world challenges.

The companies, 55 of which are based in the region, have tapped directly into the world-leading skills of the university’s Earth Observation Science group. The group is underpinned by long-term funding from NERC and capability from the NERC National Centre for Earth Observation.

The success of these collaborations has also shaped development plans in the East Midlands, with new investments that include the £100 million Space Park Leicester development.

East of England

New freshwater lake restoration project restores rare species habitat in the Norfolk and Suffolk Broads

A major freshwater biodiversity hotspot that supports a quarter of Britain’s rarest birds, insects and plants has adopted an ambitious £4.5 million restoration project. The project is based on work by the NERC-funded University of Stirling Freshwater Sciences research group.

The Hoveton Great Broad project is one of the largest shallow lake freshwater restoration projects ever undertaken in the UK. The project is currently improving the biodiversity and ecological resilience of this vital wetland habitat based on the latest science.

The ongoing transformation of this area of natural beauty into a sustainable species-rich wildlife haven is a draw for the 7.6 million annual visitors to the Norfolk and Suffolk Broads.


Partnership delivers multimillion-pound of benefits in the south-west while improving water quality and benefitting nature

A partnership between NERC-funded scientists and South West Water (SWW) has reduced water treatment costs, improved water quality and enhanced natural habitats. The outcomes have been so positive that SWW has increased investment from £4.5 million in 2010 to 2015 to £17 million in 2020 to 2025.

NERC scientists have been working with SWW since 2006 to transform the way that upstream water catchments are managed. The work is projected to have a natural capital benefit of over £40 million, and a 3:1 cost-benefit ratio for the investment made.

To date, 2,000 hectares of peatland on Exmoor have been restored, cutting the peat content of drinking water by up to 50% and reducing storm water runoff by a third.


Collaboration enables small businesses in the south-east to become global trailblazers

Small businesses are growing rapidly and gaining a foothold in world markets thanks to transformational robotics technology developed in partnership with the NERC-funded National Oceanography Centre (NOC).

The compact, low-cost autonomous vehicles are proving a game-changer in sea-based operations, attracting inward investment and international clients. The tide of success stories includes AutoNaut, which attributes £1.5 million of its growth to its engagement with NOC, and ecoSUB Robotics which is achieving estimated global sales of £5 million per year.

NOC’s Marine Robotics Innovation Centre provides fledgling firms with space, facilities and opportunities to harness NOC expertise. In addition, NOC’s Marine Autonomous Robotic Systems team provides specialist input in developing, operating and maintaining the technology.


Traffic schemes improve air quality and health in London and beyond

London’s air is cleaner and healthier thanks to ambitious emissions control schemes underpinned by NERC-funded science.

Following the introduction of the ultra low emission zone, on average 44,000 fewer polluting cars per day drive in central London and nitrogen dioxide emissions have fallen 44%.

Daily measurement of atmospheric pollution across London, combined with predictive modelling, helped policymakers select the most effective traffic control options. By quantifying the impacts of air pollution on health, research has also helped drive public support for tighter, more ambitious emissions controls.

King’s College London scientists worked in partnership with Transport for London, supported by NERC, the Medical Research Council, ESRC, Defra, the Department of Health and Social Care and the National Institute for Health and Care Research. Similar interventions are now being planned across the UK and worldwide.

Investing for the future

NERC continues to support research, training and innovation that will deliver benefits to communities, economies and the environment across the UK.

Regional impact from science of the environment: a £17 million NERC programme bringing research organisations together with businesses, policy bodies and other organisations to deliver regional impact from environmental science. Four projects in Yorkshire, the south-west, west Midlands and London have to date engaged nearly 600 partner organisations and helped to secure over £80 million in regional investment.

UK Geoenergy observatories (UKGEOS): a £31 million network of subsurface observatories in Cheshire, Cardiff and Glasgow. Delivered by the NERC BGS, UKGEOS will provide valuable new insight into how geoenergy and subsurface energy storage can help to deliver clean economic growth.

IAPETUS2 Doctoral Training Partnership: a £4.5 million programme in the north-east and Scotland that aims to develop the next generation of leaders in environmental science. Funded by NERC, the initiative comprises nine universities and NERC-funded research centres, and 35 external partners including Ordnance Survey and the National Trust for Scotland.

Contributing towards the sustainable development goals

NERC science contributes towards the following UN sustainable development goals:

  • eight: decent work and economic growth
  • nine: industry, innovation and infrastructure
  • 11: sustainable cities and communities

Top image:  Credit: MarcelC, iStock, Getty Images Plus via Getty Images

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