Officials fumbling in the dark on light pollution problem

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 07 February, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 07 February, 2012, 12:00am


Each night, if we look up at the sky from our urban areas, it's almost impossible to see the twinkling stars because the lights in the city centre are up to 500 times brighter than those in our rural areas.

Light pollution in Hong Kong is no longer just an issue in our urban hub, either; it has extended gradually to the new towns. This is reflected in the significant increase in the number of complaints about light pollution to the government, from only nine cases in 2003 to 361 cases in 2011.

However, many within the business sector and even our government think that the prosperity of Hong Kong is measured by its brightness at night, and being artificially lit by mega advertising billboards, decorative lights and flickering neon signs. Such superficial signs of prosperity generate huge social costs, including the sleepless nights endured by people affected by excessive light, and higher emissions of greenhouse gas and air pollutants because more electricity is needed to keep this Pearl of the Orient overly lit from dusk till dawn.

The city's electricity consumption increased by 26.2per cent from 1997 to 2007, while the population growth for the same period was only 6.8per cent. Our lifestyles have contributed to the high increase in energy use, though overly bright and inefficient external lighting has exacerbated the increase.

Friends of the Earth (HK) launched the first territory-wide lights-out campaign in 2008 to raise public awareness of light pollution and urged the government to tackle the problem through legislation. In response, Chief Executive Donald Tsang Yam-kuen vowed in his 2008 policy address to consider using legislation to control light pollution.

The Environment Bureau commissioned a consultancy study into the issue in 2009, and found that over 70per cent of respondents considered that there was light pollution in Hong Kong.

The study reported that several cities such as London, Frankfurt, Sydney and Shanghai have mandatory control for light pollution/nuisance. However, our government did not follow this approach. Instead, it set up a task force to develop guidelines that the lighting industry would hopefully follow.

The task force, of which I am a member and which began work last August, has developed a broad-brush framework that can help raise awareness and give some directions. We expect to conclude our guidelines, including relevant technical standards, before the middle of this year.

Yet, to my surprise, the government released a set of its own broad guidelines last month. These guidelines contain no zoning differentiations, no curfew hours or specific light-intensity reduction rates. This makes it difficult for any lighting designers or property management personnel to follow.

By releasing a set of vague guidelines ahead of more specific - and more meaningful - standards, the government may be confusing the public and industry.

Meanwhile, without mandatory regulation, any guidelines could well be ignored by advertisers and others responsible for the problem, as past experience has shown. Still, the government intends to 'test' these guidelines for three years before any legislative consideration. I consider this a delaying tactic of a government that is not committed to solving the problem.

The officials can wait, but the affected residents who need to either take sleeping pills or add thick curtains to prevent light disturbance cannot wait for three or more years to have a good night's sleep.

At our first lights-out event in the summer of 2008, during which many billboards and decorative lights in town were turned off for an hour, I recall participants, especially children, being so happy that they could see stars in the sky from Central. To address this problem of light nuisance, what we need from society and the government is not support for just one hour a year, but a mandatory approach that works every evening.

Edwin Lau Che-feng is director of general affairs at Friends of the Earth (HK)