Laws are a last resort on light pollution
If the solution to our light pollution is as simple as tapping the light switch, the problem would have been resolved a long time ago. The truth is that behind those flashy signboards lies a wealth of commercial interests. That explains why the government is still tiptoeing around the need of regulation even though evidence of excessive outdoor lighting in some areas abounds.
After years of study, a government taskforce has opted for the approach of voluntary compliance instead of legislation. Under the proposed charter against light pollution, businesses subscribing to it are expected to switch off external non-static lights used for decoration, promotion or advertising after 11 pm or midnight, depending on the location. Lighting for festive holidays and security will be allowed. Businesses that operate for long hours and ground-floor shops that stay open late will also be exempted.
That the taskforce has shied away from recommending legislation is unsurprising. Hong Kong is not known as the city of light for no reason. The myriad of neon signboards and brightly lit billboards do not just add to our vibrancy, they are also the lifeline of the advertising industry and other businesses. The consideration given to commercial viability and flexibility is not unjustified.
That said, it does not mean light pollution can go unchecked. There can be no disputes that billboards in some areas are too bright and switched on for too long. The excessive lighting is not only wasting energy and environmentally unfriendly, it also disturbs residents living nearby.
In a free economy like Hong Kong, mandating changes in business practice by law should be the last resort. But if promotion and education are found to be ineffective, as in the case of the non-binding charter promoting the minimum wage, legislation will be an option. It is good to hear that the taskforce has not ruled out the possibility of introducing legislation. Should the charter fail to improve the situation, the authority should consider more forceful measures.