Professor Susan Waldron, Director of Research and Skills at the Natural Environment Research Council emphasises the importance of research and innovation in adapting to climate change
When governments came together last year for COP26, UK research was core to helping negotiators understand and respond to the climate crisis. The Natural Environment Research Council (NERC), part of UK Research and Innovation, is the largest UK investor in environment and climate change research. For the last 50 years, we have funded curiosity-driven, innovative, ground-breaking science – identifying the issues we face and finding solutions or ways to adapt to climate change.
Our scientists have provided leadership and catalysed action, from identifying the hole in the ozone layer which led to the 1987 Montreal Protocol, to exposing the risks of climate change, and finding microplastics in the oceans. In 1985, NERC funding established the first Global Sea Level Observing System (GLOSS) for long-term climate change and oceanographic sea level monitoring, and in the 1990s, our scientists discovered that carbon capture and storage was a viable option to tackle greenhouse gases. As we look ahead, we are supporting the UK’s commitments and key goals, most notably, its ambition to reach net-zero emissions by 2040.
We are investing £40 million in four projects that are ‘Changing the Environment’, funding research consortia to come together across disciplines, pool their expertise and address the most intractable environmental problems facing the UK as it adapts to climate change and moves to net-zero emissions. Challenges tackled include how to create net-zero cities, how land regeneration can achieve net-zero emissions, drive rural economies, and support increased biodiversity, and how to generate rapid research understanding to support government policymaking.
Decarbonisation of heat in our homes and businesses is essential to meet net-zero targets. NERC’s British Geological Survey recently opened ‘UK Geoenergy Observatory’ offers facilities to explore how abandoned flooded coal mines can supply geothermal energy through extracting and storing heat. The size and sustainability of this heat source, and how to access with minimal environmental impact can be understood. This is the first in a network of underground observatories to help us understand how geothermal energy, hydrogen, and carbon capture and storage can reduce carbon emissions.
Supporting the financial sector to make environmentally sustainable decisions and generate a greener global economy is a key priority, and last year we launched the UK Centre for Greening Finance and Investment to support this ambition. Output will be tools for example to advise on storm and flood risk, or pollution created by companies and the liabilities that result. NERC-funded research underpins the knowledge transfer to the financial sector, for example, we have invested £42.5 million in partnership with other organisations to understand the connection between air pollution and public health.
This year, the RRS Sir David Attenborough, our most advanced science discovery vessel, has come into service, leading research missions in Antarctica and the Arctic. Operated by NERC’s polar research facility the British Antarctica Survey, the vessel will transform how ship-borne science is conducted in polar regions and provide scientists with state-of-the-art facilities to research the oceans, seafloor, ice, and atmosphere – crucial as polar regions play a critical role in balancing global climate.
Our researchers study the entire planet, from the edge of the atmosphere to the centre of the Earth, discovering the past and projecting into the future, and how humans interact with the planet. We have boosted Discovery Science support for such question-driven research that creates breakthroughs. And some of this fundamental research offers insight into key earth system phenomena valuable to society. For example, deeper knowledge of the structure of the Earth’s inner core. 2800km below the surface, knowledge of the inner core will further understanding of the Earth’s magnetic field, which has shielded the surface environment from solar radiation for billions of years and now helps mitigate against space weather events – significant anthropogenic impacts disrupting telecommunications and power grids.
A core part of our role as a UK research council is to create the next generation of environmental scientists. NERC’s public engagement activity is designed to inspire people to use environmental science evidence in their own decision-making, and to attract a diverse pipeline of talent and skills to bring new scientists with fresh ideas and solutions to the challenges our planet faces. Our pathways for early career researchers give opportunities across our facilities and UK universities, with PhD level training across the breadth of environmental sciences and where specialist strategic skills are required, for example how to manage UK marine resources, where natural capital accounting, social and behavioural science, and economic understanding is necessary.
NERC is at the forefront of finding solutions to the changes our planet faces. We are ambitious to lead a broad and diverse research community to bring about the environmental solutions – clean air and water, limiting and adapting to climate change, a circular economy, and diverse ecosystems – needed in the UK and worldwide, to foster a productive, healthy and resilient environment.