Hong Kong is well-known as the Pearl of the Orient because of its bright lights of skyline at night. It is generally acknowledged by business parties that the brighter the lights in the city, the more business opportunities they will grab. (Lau, 2012) Nevertheless, behind this glamorous metropolitan city, the overuse of outdoor lighting facilities sacrifices Hong Kong’s valuable natural resources and citizens’ good living environment. Light pollution caused by it has been increasing rapidly and is an environmental problem, which also has similar adverse impacts as other pollution such as air, noise, plagued Hong Kong in this decade.
Thus, the Government has taken a pragmatic approach to tackle the problem with an issue of Guidelines on Industry Best Practices for External Lighting Installations at the beginning of this year. (Environment Bureau, et al., 2012) However, it is deemed to be far less than enough to ease serious light pollution in this flourishing city.
The purpose of this paper is twofold: (1) to discuss how light pollution affect the environment and residents; and (2) to analyze relation between light pollution problem and different aspect which include public awareness, business and law.
Background of Light Pollution
Light pollution, also known as photopollution or luminous pollution, is the alteration of natural light levels in the outdoor environment owing to artificial light sources. The increase in night sky brightness due to light pollution diminishes the view of stars and planets. (Cinzano, et al., 2000) Generally, outdoor lights initially are designed for illuminating a specific area on the ground or wall, but in reality, some light spill out to a much larger area. (Pun & So, 2009) Some lighting facilities even direct upward and this cause a much more serious light pollution.
In Hong Kong, according to the data collected by the Department of Physics at The University of Hong Kong since 2003, the urban night sky is on average 100 times brighter than the darkest rural sites. (Pun & So, 2009) This indicates that high population and lighting densities can aggravate light pollution problem. Excessive use of strong spotlights for illuminating advertising billboards and huge neon signs on commercial building are the main factors of light pollution problem in Hong Kong. Other pollution sources include street lamps with poor design of lampshades and pointing direction and other artificial lighting with little regard to fixture shielding.
To narrow the scope of light pollution source discussed in this paper, it will mainly focus at lighting facilities for commercial use.
Adverse Impact of Light Pollution
Light Pollution has adverse effect on natural environment and human beings, such as energy wastage disruption to ecosystem and health problems. (Cheung, 2010)
Excessive use of lights leads to a wastage of energy. Some neon signs and lights for illuminating advertising billboards switch on even at midnight when there are only a few people on the street who may have a chance to look at the advertisements. This energy wastage may aggravate air pollution as well as global warning problem because Hong Kong’s electricity is generated using coal and natural gas. (HK Electric, 2011) The generation of electricity emits carbon dioxide and other air pollutants. Carbon dioxide is a greenhouse gas. Its increase in atmosphere causes an increase of the temperature world-wide. (Narisada & Schreuder, 2004) The excessive use of lighting facilities for commercial use is not essential in our lives and this not only leads to light pollution but also other pollution problem such as global warming and exhaustion of non-renewable resources.
As for ecosystem, being an important stop-over point of the East Asia-Australasian Flyway for migratory birds, Hong Kong’s excessive outdoor lightings may affect migratory as well as non-migratory birds. It may disorient physiological cycles and the movement of animals. (Travis & Catherine, 2004) The breeding patterns of nocturnal animals and insect populations and management of metabolism, development and life programmes of plants are also affected adversely. (Deda, et al., 2007)
Human beings may also be the victim of light pollution mainly because their living environment is brighter due to the strong light pollution source such as neon sign. A brighter night area will make them difficult to have a satisfactory sleeping at night. Sleep disruption may cause irritability, tiredness and nervousness in the following day. (Wu & Wong, 2012) Their immunity to disease may also decrease and in turn lead to a longer-term health risks. (The Campaign for Dark Skies, 2009) Disruption of sleeping is the most concerned adverse impact by the public since it is the most apparent effect observed in their lives.
Light Pollution and Public Awareness
Light pollution problem is complicated by public ignorance. In the past, the general public was oblivious to the damage being done and did not value what was destroyed by light pollution. (Berry, 1976) Fortunately, the increasing evidence of adverse effects mentioned above make people start to pay more attention on this issue, but still it is not the most concerned pollution problem in Hong Kong. When local residents were asked about which environmental issues they are most concerned in 2008, more than a half answered drinking water pollution, air pollution, and global warning. (DeGolyer, 2008) Light pollution even did not appear in the choice of answers. This may be because light pollution problem only start to get high publicity in this decade while the public has been educated about other pollution problem for a long time. Public awareness with intrinsic knowledge has played an important role in solving environmental problem. (Bickerstaff & Walker, 2001) Take air pollution as an example, the community at large is aware of this problem. The Government, environmental groups, individuals who are environmentalism and other stakeholders have taken a lot of actions to tackle the problem such as implementing mitigation measures, raising public awareness on this issue and trying their little effort to take practical action. Therefore, public awareness contributes to the ease of pollution even though the pollution level has not met an acceptable level yet.
It may be pleasing to note that the public awareness of light pollution problem seems to be arising but this may be because more light pollution sources which are mainly from commercial parties exists in urban area. There is a growing number of people lodging complaints about light pollution to the authorities. According to the statistic provided by the Secretary for the Environment, Mr. Edward Yau at the Legislative Council in 2010, complaints about light pollution had increased from 103 in 2007 to 389 in 2009. (Hong Kong’s Information Services Department, 2010) This indicates that more light pollution exists in Hong Kong and thus more people are concerned about this pollution problem because it directly affects their living quality to some extent. This increase of public awareness has helped to ease light pollution in Hong Kong. There are more people to urge the Government to have more pragmatic measures in addressing the problem. When complaints are received from abutting residents, some commercial building owners such as The One shopping complex in Tsim Sha Tsui are also willing to reduce the brightness of their lighting facilities. (Cheung, 2011) However, the level of public awareness on light pollution in Hong Kong is far less than enough for a success in solving this problem. Education and publicity measures could be used to increase it so that it can motivate the community to tackle light pollution problem with more effort.
Light Pollution and Business
Hong Kong’s economy relies on commercial and tourism industry heavily. These two industries correlate closely with the increasingly serious light pollution problem.
Commercial sector relies on lighting to attract business. So, use of lighting facilities is understandable. However, overuse and over-brightness of their lighting facilities are the main factor of light pollution and should be reduced. Business parties generally pay little attention on light pollution caused by them, even though they emphasize corporate social responsibility. Some of them think that switching off the lights required by the public will eliminate Hong Kong’s economic activities at night and deprive local residents of a late dinner break. If residents nearby are not satisfied with their bright lights, they can choose to live in a dimmer district. (Cheung, 2011) So, most of them do not take any practical action to alleviate light pollution problem caused by them.
Another problem is due to Hong Kong’s famous skyline at night which entices tourists. A majority of tourists visit Hong Kong mainly due to its reputation on neon lights. They look forward to enjoy a spectacular night view in Victoria Harbour with many neon signs on skyscrapers on two sides of the harbour. Since Hong Kong’s economy is reliant on tourism, the Government introduced “A Symphony of Lights” which combines interactive lights of building around Victoria Harbour in 2004 to boost tourism industry. (Tourism Commission, 2005) So, business parties may think that light pollution is only a small side-effect of flourishing tourism industry and fast economic development.
These lights and huge neon signs are part of Hong Kong’s culture and are often used by commercial sector and even the Government as a tool for attracting tourists and local customers to buy their product and thus stimulate economy. However, in an opinion survey conducted in 2010, people who visited areas of intensive external lighting, including tourists, customers, have a higher proportion considering external lighting signs bright or too bright than shop owners, building owners and property management. (Policy 21 Limited, 2010) So, this indicates that business parties do not need to use such high level of brightness of lighting signs so to attract local and foreign customers. They can adjust the brightness to an acceptable level so that people nearby will not be adversely affected by them while they could still use lighting signs to attract customers.
Light Pollution and the Law
In Hong Kong, there is no specific ordinance with regard to light pollution. (Legislative Council, 2011) Even the public and green groups have urged the Government to introduce law to combat light pollution, which is similar to what they did to solve other pollution problems, the Government only issued a guideline, namely Guidelines on Industry Best Practices for External Lighting Installations, in January 2012. Different from an ordinance, the voluntary guideline only suggests the Government departments and private sector to have a better external lighting installations. (Environment Bureau, et al., 2012) It is deemed to be toothless to alleviate this increasingly severe environmental problem as no one could enforce business partes. (Cheung, 2011)
One of the agruments for no legislation in Hong Kong is that some Asian countries which have similar economies to Hong Kong do not adopt any mandatory regulation over external lighting. (Legislative Council, 2011) However, the urban planning of Hong Kong and these countries should also be considered. Hong Kong has a relatively poor urban planning in the past because of rare land available for development, so residential and commercial buildings were always buit next to each other in urban area, such as Mong Kok and Tsim Sha Tsui; while for other Asian countries, their business area has a clear speration from residential area. Thus, they do not need to use legislation on external lighting of commercial building to solve light pollution problem. In fact, there are many countries, such as Britiain and the United States with mandatory action in regulation of external light. (Legislative Council, 2011) Hong Kong Legislative Council should consider the city’s special culture and take partial approach in mandatory regulation, such as only restricting the applicability of regularoty framework to new lighting installation. In addition, the light from huge neon signs and flashing lights on the top of commercial buildings can even bleed into residential flats nearby with double curtains on windows. This problem cannot be solved only by the residents. Even though they compain to relative authorities, the officials cannot reduce the brightness of the pollution source due to lack of ordinance. So, one of the reugulation may empower the officials to enforce commercial buildings to mitigate their light pollution source to an acceptable level after a complaint about their lighting facilities is lodged. As a result, the city’s culture – “City of the Night” will not be altered a lot after the introduction of law regarding external lighting. A mandatory approach to solve light pollution problem should be much better than a voluntary guideline.
Light pollution has been a widely-discussed topic in Hong Kong in this decade. There has been a call to the Government for working in full swing to map out strategies to solve this environmental problem effectively. A series of short to long term measures, including education, publicity and law enforcement should be implemented. Apart from the Government, all sectors – families, communities and public and private organizations at every level – must also recognize their roles in alleviating light pollution problem in Hong Kong. In fact, the environment is a public resource that requires collaborative efforts of the whole community to conserve. It would be pleasing to note that everyone is enthusiastic in solving this problem and in the near future, we will create for ourselves and our further generation a better and light-pollution-free city in which to live and work.