Sam Fankhauser, Ana de Menezes and Nina Opacic

Published: 9 September 2019

This report was commissioned and funded by the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) as part of its support for the Place-Based Climate Action Network (PCAN).

Executive summary

  • The Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) and UK Research and Innovation (UKRI) have a long history of supporting social science research on climate change. Between 2008 and spring 2019, UK research councils have awarded grants to 481 climate change projects with strong social science components worth £438 million overall (including non-social science components).
  • Although the social sciences are the purview of ESRC, social science research on climate change is supported by all research councils – typically in a multi-disciplinary setting. ESRC has supported 70 per cent of the projects and is the lead council in 20 per cent of them. The Natural Environment Research Council (NERC) leads on 55 per cent of the projects, while the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) is the leading funder of energy research.
  • Research centres and major programmes play an important role in social science research on climate change. The largest ten per cent of projects – including 15 research centres – account for almost two thirds of all funding. Roughly one half of all projects were for £200,000 or less.
  • Funding has been allocated to universities across the UK, but with a noticeable concentration in London and the South East. Northern Ireland, Scotland and the North East have received the lowest amount of direct funding.
  • The supported research covers a remarkable diversity of topics, methods and geographies. Support is split evenly between projects that focus on the UK and overseas. Most overseas research treats climate change as a global issue, but there is also a strong interest in Africa.
  • There is an even split between research on adaptation (concerned with climate change impacts) and mitigation (concerned with emissions reductions). Many adaptation projects are concerned with developing countries, while mitigation projects are often focused on the UK.
  • Despite the diversity, it is possible to identify some thematic priorities. These include research on:  practices and behaviour in relation to climate change; climate policy and governance; the UK energy transition; floods and droughts in the UK; climate-compatible development in Africa;  agriculture and land use; climate change and the natural environment.
  • There are research gaps in most of these areas. In addition, there are new topics that have not yet been covered in detail. Notable research gaps include: the political economy of the zero carbon transition; combining environmental and social objectives into a just transition; poverty alleviation in a zero carbon world; the integration of climate and broader environmental research; the social science of carbon capture and negative emissions technology;  the role of finance.

Read the full report and view the full list of projects in the downloads below.

Suggested citation: S. Fankhauser, A. de Menezes and N. Opacic. 2019. UK research on the social science of climate change. A synthesis of ESRC and related investments. Policy Report. Place-Based Climate Action Network, London School of Economics and Political Science.