Hong Kong needs a 'lights out' law

Edwin Lau decries guidelines from taskforce with too many vested interests

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 25 September, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 25 October, 2016, 5:45pm

The brighter the lights, the more business we will get - that is probably the perception of many people from the commercial sector and even some senior government officials.

However, they are seeing things from a narrow, business-oriented angle. They have never put themselves in the shoes of sleep-disrupted people who have had to seek medical help to ensure a good night's rest.

Friends of the Earth (HK) receives a constant stream of complaints from those affected by light pollution, from grass-roots families to wealthy home owners. Many of them live right next to flashing billboards. They are desperate to get help, and have appealed to green groups, legislators and the government.

Four years after former chief executive Donald Tsang Yam-kuen announced in his policy address that he would tackle light pollution in the city, our government still does not have the authority to request billboard owners or advertisers to dim or turn off their lights, no matter how late it is. Yet, if a household is affected by continuous noise pollution, the authorities can immediately stop it under the Noise Control Ordinance.

Instead of imposing similar legislative controls on light pollution, the government set up a task force to develop voluntary guidelines for the commercial sector.

Task force members were appointed by the government, with the majority representing vested interests and a minority from green non-governmental organisations. This approach was meant to show that the government had tried to maintain a balanced view.

As a task force member, I have been visiting people affected by light pollution in their flats. I went after 11pm to observe the lighting, which penetrated thick curtains into bedrooms, shining unpleasant coloured rays onto pillows. Added to this, it is a complete waste of energy.

At close to midnight, I saw strong spotlights shining onto solid metal roller doors of shops as well as an array of over 30 spotlights shining onto a large billboard with no advert on it. Is this the right way to use our finite energy?

Recently, the task force discussed whether to set the curfew urging businesses to turn off their lights at 11pm or midnight. It is shameful that most members voted for midnight when noise controls come into effect at 11pm.

It puzzles me why the Tsang administration appointed so many people with vested interests to sit on the task force; they overshadow the views from green NGOs who seek to prevent light pollution and reduce energy wastage.

If tourists are affected by light pollution and cannot sleep, will they enjoy their stay in this city? When shops are closed, why do they need to leave so many lights on? For road safety, we depend on street lights, not billboards.

Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying has said light pollution is an environmental issue that needs to be tackled. He needs to steer the task force back onto the right track of producing a set of guidelines that can really tackle the problem.

We all know voluntary guidelines are toothless. If we settle for something voluntary, we can envisage that the result will be even weaker than some form of legislation. And just look at how ineffective the legislation banning idling engines has been in improving roadside air quality.

Hong Kong earned its name, the Pearl of the Orient, many decades ago, but today this "pearl" has become an overly bright light bulb that contributes to the high pollution levels and heat-island effect that suffocate Hongkongers and tourists alike.

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