EXCLUSIVE: Heathrow runway research ‘open to all kinds of interpretations’

In the wake of widespread media coverage concerning claims that a third Heathrow runway would not breach EU pollution laws, Professor Rod Jones explains his research and why he remains ‘agnostic.’ 

Heathrow Airport chief executive John Holland-Kaye delivered evidence to the Environmental Audit Committee on the expansion of the airport

Heathrow Airport is currently competing for expansion with Gatwick Airport has spoken to Professor Rod Jones from the University of Cambridge, who performed the air pollution monitoring study at Heathrow Airport, to find out more about his findings.

The study, which has been criticised by air quality stakeholders, set out to test new air quality monitoring installations, and Professor Jones said the “experimental” findings address “just one strand” of emissions testing.


Professor Jones told that the research itself has not yet been published but originates from a PowerPoint presentation he gave on low cost sensor networks for measuring urban air quality.

“There is a narrative I provide with it,” Prof Jones said, adding that “as a PowerPoint presentation on its own it is open to all kinds of interpretations.”

The research itself focussed on the installation of a network of low cost installations across Heathrow Airport for monitoring air pollution. These instruments are not certified but are calibrated against the measuring instruments already in place.

The instruments, Prof Jones explained, “Allowed us to separate emissions from the airport itself from the background emissions, measuring the NO2,” and provided an “experimental, observational verification of emissions from the airport.”


The research showed that the predominant force of NO2 outside the airport perimeter does not originate from the airport itself, but rather from ‘background traffic’ in the surrounding area.

The reason for the contention, Prof Jones said, is that according to research by the Airports Commission, “over the next decade – which is the timescale of the expansion – the move from Euro 5 to Euro 6 vehicles will mean a significant reduction in that background NO2.

“If that is the case – and I should add that that this prediction takes account of the fact that vehicles emit more in real life than laboratories show, that has been factored in – then the NO2 level reductions will more than offset the no2 increase in emissions should the airport get a third runway.”


However, Prof Jones said that the research addresses just “one factor in Heathrow– I am completely agnostic on the outcomes. We’ve observationally confirmed just one strand of the airport commission’s research. We didn’t go out there to prove a point, we went there to try a new measurement unit.”

When asked, he said that while the research showed that the ‘background traffic’ in the area is predominantly not associated with the airport, the study did not take into account possible increases in traffic to and from the airport in the case of a third runway, as this is much harder to measure.

Prof Jones also added that while the research required an arrangement with Heathrow Airport to mount the sensors and British Airways to provide info about their craft movements, there has been no exchange of money.

“This is independent research funded by the Natural Environment Research Council and there were no constraints on how we interpret our results or how we present them,” he said.

The research is being prepared into a scientific paper and will then be peer reviewed before it is published to the public.


In the wake of media reports on the findings, there has have been concerns aired by air quality stakeholders.

Chief executive of environmental law group ClientEarth, James Thornton said: “When making the decision on Heathrow the government has a moral and legal duty to protect people’s health and ensure they have the right to breathe clean air.

“It shouldn’t base its decision on optimistic modelling at best and a naive view of the car industry that has proven time and time again it can’t be trusted to bring levels of air pollution down.”

“The government’s own report recently showed that diesel cars are emitting on average six times the legal limits when tested on the roads. They have even admitted one of the reasons we have toxic air is because car makers have failed to meet legal emissions limits.”

“Last year the UK Supreme Court ordered the government to draw up new plans that would bring air pollution in London within legal limits as soon as possible. Even without expansion, the area around Heathrow will continue to be in breach of legal pollution limits until at least 2025. Air pollution around the airport needs to be cut drastically before we can think about expansion.”


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