At last, a Just Stop Oil protest I can get on board with

In their latest protest, Just Stop Oil spray-painted two private jets at Stansted Airport
In their latest protest, Just Stop Oil spray-painted two private jets at Stansted Airport - Getty

This week Just Stop Oil conducted its best and worst protests to date. By spraying Stonehenge with orange powder, the protesters once again united the country in a collective groan of tired disdain. But then, less than 24 hours later, they pulled off their most relevant stunt to date.

Anyone who acknowledges the climate crisis will agree that investment in renewable energy, not fossil fuels, is the future. This is Just Stop Oil’s message, and yet their tactics are falling flat. The fact that the two men currently courting the public’s approval described the Stonehenge stunt as a “disgrace” (Rishi Sunak) and “pathetic” (Sir Keir Starmer) is a good indicator of just how unpopular Just Stop Oil has become across the political spectrum.

Personally, I didn’t feel outraged when Rajan Naidu, 73, and Niamh Lynch, 21, were filmed apparently dusting Stonehenge with a bit of orange cornflour this week. Rather, it frustrated me to see that Just Stop Oil continues to get it wrong. By blocking motorways, splashing artworks, interrupting sport matches, and now targeting an ancient monument, Just Stop Oil has managed to alienate a large, influential part of society who, in other circumstances, may well have got behind the movement.

Just Stop Oil protesters spraying an orange substance on Stonehenge on Jun 19
Just Stop Oil protesters spraying an orange substance on Stonehenge on Jun 19 - Just Stop Oil/PA Wire

Ed Miliband put it quite succinctly at the Hay Festival this year: “When you block a motorway of people who are trying to get to their relatives who are dying [...] that isn’t helping your cause. I don’t question your motivation but I massively question your tactics.”

Targeting a World Heritage Site like Stonehenge has also been eye-grabbing but for the wrong reasons: “Surely vandalising a landmark that celebrates the changing seasons, the importance of community, and sheer human ingenuity completely contradicts the protestors’ own principles,” said Dr Nick Merriman, the chief executive of English Heritage.

The counter argument to all this is that actions, sometimes bold and unpopular ones, are a cornerstone of the protest movement through history. So if nonviolent civil disobedience is the approach Just Stop Oil is going to take, it was heartening to see that, while apparently illegal and potentially dangerous, their follow-up stunt at least highlighted a pressing issue in the climate change conversation: two protesters cut through the perimeter fence at Stansted Airport and sprayed two private jets. Two women have been arrested on suspicion of criminal damage. Just Stop Oil claimed Taylor Swift’s aircraft had been parked there, but Stansted Airport denied Swift’s jet was at the airfield.

A report by the European Federation for Transport and Environment in 2021 found that private jets are five to 14 times more polluting, per passenger, than commercial flights, and 50 times more polluting than trains. In just one hour, a single private jet can emit two tonnes of carbon dioxide. By comparison, the average EU citizen emits 8.2 tonnes of CO2 over the course of a whole year.

You would assume that everyone who uses a private jet knows, at least in a broad sense, that it is a highly polluting practice. And yet the usage of private jets has gone up in recent years. Emissions have soared by 31 per cent between 2005 and 2019, which is faster than the polluting rate of commercial aviation. And more are being bought than ever before. The General Aviation Manufacturers Association found that there were 730 new private business jets sold in 2023, up from 712 new jets in 2022.

Recently, flying on private jets has become something available to more and more of us. Companies such as Globe Air allow people to book on an “empty leg”, when the jet is being repositioned or returning to a base after a one-way trip, at a cut price. I found flights from Prague to Berlin, departing on the same day, with Globe Air for €990. Some would argue this is harmless, if the flights were going to happen anyway. But a report by Transport & Environment warns that this is likely to be hooking in new customers, thus normalising private jets and in the long run, increasing demand.

The protestors claimed they were targeting Taylor Swift's jet, but Stansted denied it was in the airfield
The protestors claimed they were targeting Taylor Swift's jet, but Stansted denied it was in the airfield - AP

In recent years there has been rising scrutiny over Swift’s private jet usage, which has intensified as she travels between venues for her Eras tour. One University of Central Florida student, Jack Sweeney, runs social media accounts that track Swift’s private jets. He claims that Swift travelled 178,000 miles on her two jets in 2023. Swift’s legal team issued a “cease and desist” letter, accusing the 21-year-old of “stalking and harassing behaviour”.

Sweeney, who has previously run accounts tracking Elon Musk’s private jets, told the BBC: “I like to be fair. I try to share everyone’s info no matter who it is.”

Carbon offsetting remains Taylor Swift’s team’s defence to criticisms of her private jet usage. Speaking to the Independent, her publicist said: “Before the [Eras] tour kicked off, Taylor purchased more than double the carbon credits needed to offset all of her travel, which includes the tour.”

Flying on private jets has become increasingly accessible over the last few years
Flying on private jets has become increasingly accessible over the last few years - Alamy

Some argue that there is little excuse for anyone ever flying by private jet. Justin Francis, CEO of Responsible Travel, says: “There is no justification for a member of the public to fly on a private jet rather than a scheduled flight. I’m very sceptical about celebrities or political leaders who claim their schedules or security requirements demand one.”

On the flipside, some would argue that a tour incorporating 152 venues across five continents, as is the case with Swift’s current Eras tour, would be logistically impossible without a private aircraft. Not least because she is one of the most recognised women on the planet.

On a positive note, Francis added: “I expect Taylor Swift’s career will last long enough that she can fly in an electric private jet or personal air vehicles (including eVTOL), which are already in development.”

A nice thought, indeed. Although of course, given that an ancient stone circle – and, er, snooker – are targets, there’s nothing to say that such an environmentally friendly vehicle wouldn’t find itself doused in orange powder at some point, too.

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