NERC science improves air quality at home and abroad

7 October 2015

NERC research into air quality has reduced the damage air pollution does to human health and the environment, and generated economic benefits of up to £82 billion.

Air pollution is a serious problem for the UK. It causes an average of 29,000 premature deaths per year, reduces agricultural yields and damages buildings, woods and freshwater ecosystems. Independent analysis shows that NERC science generates environmental evidence that informs air pollution policy both in the UK and around the world.

This week, as part of NERC's 50th anniversary, our Royal Research Ship Discovery will be moored off HMS Belfast. While she is in London, scientists from the National Centre for Atmospheric Science, the National Centre for Earth Observation and the Centre for Ecology & Hydrology will be showing off their NERC-funded research into air quality and greenhouse gases.

NERC invests around £3 million a year in research that's relevant to air pollution. Commissioned by NERC, the analysis by Deloitte shows this investment reduces harm to health and the environment while supporting government and business.

The chief executive of NERC, Professor Duncan Wingham, said:

I am extremely proud of our achievements. The Natural Environment Research Council has demonstrated that it is a world-class funder of research that has an impact on health, influences policy and supports economy and business. This analysis demonstrates that investment in air pollution research can deliver positive returns.

Emissions of some air pollutants began to decline in the 1980s; the introduction of more stringent air pollutant policies between 1987 and 1990 accelerated this trend. NERC scientists collaborated with Scandinavian colleagues with the pioneering Surface Waters Acidification Programme (1983-1990) - the first truly international project on acid rain. The programme provided the evidence behind a ten-year project to reduce sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxide. This led to a reduction in these pollutants worth an estimated £17-40 billion in health and environmental costs.

NERC science fed into the first international treaty on acid rain, the 1979 Convention on Long-range Transboundary Air Pollution (CLRTAP). This led to agreements that obliged countries to cut emissions of sulfur oxides, nitrogen oxides, volatile organic compounds (VOCs), ammonia, heavy metals and persistent organic pollutants (POPs).

New tools developed by NERC scientists have helped reduce and manage the harm caused by air pollution. The Air Pollution Information System (APIS), which lets local governments assess the impact of proposed developments, was used to ensure the London Ashford Airport expansion could go ahead without damaging the Dungeness Special Area of Conservation.

NERC research influenced the UN Minamata Convention, adopted by 140 countries in 2013 to reduce mercury pollution. This is expected to avoid 1-2% increases in mercury emissions a year, limiting harm to human health and ecosystems. NERC researchers were also the first to measure hexabromocyclododecane (HBCD), a once-common flame-retardant that damages human respiratory health. Their work revealed that indoor dust was the main pathway to human exposure to HBCD, leading to a global ban in 2013.

NERC investment also helps individuals manage their exposure to air pollution through its support of the National Pollen & Aerobiology Research Unit's daily pollen forecasts. Hay fever sufferers use these forecasts to manage their symptoms and avoid absences from work. Hay fever is currently estimated to cause 4m sick days per year, incurring annual productivity losses and damage to health worth £970 million.

Data from the NERC-funded, multi-institution ClearfLo (Clean Air for London) project has been incorporated into the London Air Quality Network's mobile app. The app used by over 20,000 Londoners a day, provides air-quality reports and helps users avoid high-pollution areas.

Further information

NERC media office
Karen Christian
01793 411568
07827 872454


1. NERC is the leading funder of independent research, training and innovation in environmental science in the UK. This year marks NERC's 50th anniversary.

2. The UN Minamata Convention - external link is a global treaty, adopted by 140 countries, to protect human health and the environment from the adverse effects of mercury.