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Shedding Light On A Hot Topic

A night tour of Nathan Road discovers the array of flashing neon is not as cool as it might appear.

Yau Chui-yan – Updated on Jul 20, 2008 – SCMP

Twenty people gather in Nathan Road and look up at the same flashing advertising sign for a minute.

The 20, all from different professions, none of whom know each other, have joined a “Nathan Road tour” with the same purpose – to see the world famous thoroughfare’s dazzling array of neon signs.

They are trying to count the flickering frequency of a four-storey advertising sign. Some estimate that the sign is flickering 10 times a minute, others 20 times, but most give up early because the sign is too bright to look at for a whole 60 seconds.

When told that the flickering frequency is 40 times a minute, the group is amazed. “How do you live next to a flickering light like this?” is the common response.

The first stop on the tour is St Andrew’s church on Nathan Road in Tsim Sha Tsui. The group stands next to the church, which is dimly lit. They are told that there are regulations governing the lighting used on important buildings in countries like Britain.

“There are stars, in Tsim Sha tsui,” one group member says in amazement pointing at the sky. “The weather is much cooler than we expect,” another says.

But after leaving the church area, there are no more stars to be seen, just the flashing advertising signs.

The first blow is a big advertising box located at the intersection of Nathan and Austin roads.

“The lighting of the advertising box made me feel so hot,” says Leung Pak-wai, a social work student. His friend Cheung Siu-shan, a geography student, agrees.

According to Elsie Yuen Oi-chi, the group’s escort from Friends of the Earth, the difference in temperature between the city and rural areas is 10 to 12 degrees Celsius. “These advertisements contribute to the temperature,” Ms Yuen says. “When 1 watt of electricity is consumed, 1.3 watts will be consumed to use an air conditioner to lower the temperature.”

Light pollution and energy wastage from flashing advertising signs is not a new topic in Hong Kong. The situation has become serious since Kai Tak airport closed in 1998 and restrictions on blinking lights were relaxed.

From January last year to June this year, the Environmental Protection Department received 67 complaints about external lighting. The department’s response is to advise the management firm or owners of the lighting to reduce the intensity or adjust the angle of spot lamps to minimise the impact on nearby residents.

The government also issued letters last September to chambers of commerce and trade associations appealing for their support in reducing unnecessary lighting and using more energy-efficient lights.

However, what is still missing is legislation directed at light pollution.

Friends of the Earth tried to highlight the problem last month with its “dim light” campaign, in which some building owners agreed to turn off their lights for one night.

James To Kun-sun, a Democrat lawmaker representing Kowloon West, has had complaints from people living in the district.

“There is no such legislation and affected people have no way to ask for help,” Mr To says.

“Also, in some cases, the main tenant, who owns the rights to the outer area of the building, will pay some of the affected residents as compensation. This also complicates the issue.”

He has tabled questions in the Legislative Council a few times, but his request for legislation on light pollution has not received a positive response from the government.

“I don’t understand,” he says. “The government didn’t even want to research this topic. Maybe the government thinks this is business operation and the number of people affected is small.”

Mr To may be right. To most people in the city, flashing lights are advertising and nothing more.

Cathy Yu Sin-ping used to be one of those people, but she changed her mind after inspecting the flashing light boxes close up.

“At first I felt this was remote and nothing to do with me,” says Ms Yu, who spends her daylight hours working as a clerk

“After this tour, I now understand the meaning of `those who have more power create more destruction’.”

Walking along Nathan Road, Ms Yu found it was most comfortable in Yau Ma Tei, because that is the section with the fewest advertising signs.

“It is much cooler,” she said.

The group agrees that the neon signs have a powerful advertising impact. However, they started to wonder at the wastage while looking at a blank advertising sign shining brightly.

“It is understandable that businessmen want to have better exposure by having an advertisement. But is there a need to switch on all the lights?” Ms Yu asks, while looking at a building in Mong Kok, which has about 70 lights shining brightly. When the tour gets moving again, there is discussion about Hong Kong’s well-worn image as the sparkling, brightly-lit Pearl of the Orient.

“I think that image is a construction, because there are lots of lights shining across the harbour,” says Mr Leung, the social work student, who plans to bring a friend on a Nathan Road tour.

“But I believe it is not necessary for this to be the image of Hong Kong. It can be something else. We have to think about it,” he adds, to general agreement.

We Do Not Need Laser Distraction

Updated on Jun 07, 2008 – SCMP

The laser night show, the Symphony of Lights, which takes place at 8pm every night at the harbourfront, energises the night scene of Hong Kong but ironically blackens the sky.

This is because, behind the emission of these colourful beams of light, a large quantity of pollutants is generated.

Given the twinkling neon lights of skyscrapers and the headlights of moving vehicles along the highway, the Hong Kong night scene is already gorgeous enough.

Do we really need this additional feature?

Yanson Wong, Shek Tong Tsui

Light Pollution A Real Dilemma

Updated on May 28, 2008 – SCMP

In Hong Kong you see so many colourful neon signs and other forms of lighting on Nathan Road and parts of Mong Kok.

Friends of the Earth has argued that these garish signs are a waste of energy and affect people’s health.

However, the government faces a problem as the lights are very popular with tourists and the tourism industry is important to Hong Kong.

However, light pollution is a serious issue.

Some residents in Mong Kok have already said that the strong lights from advertising signs disturb their sleep. Some research has shown that it can adversely affect the sleep of babies in Hong Kong.

Do we need to use so many lights?

Some of the more garish signs do appear to be a waste of energy, just designed by companies to attract customers.

Friends of the Earth is actually organising tours to show how wasteful these lights are (“Nathan Road tours to expose lighting abuses”, May 13).

Businesses have to ask themselves if they really need to install so many bright spotlights.

From an environmental protection point of view I can see a case for banning spotlights. However, we do not want to harm the economy.

The government must try to strike the right balance between the needs of the environment and the protection of our economy.

Irene T. S. Diu, Tsz Wan Shan

Lights turn night into day

Updated on May 24, 2008 – SCMP

I am always completely amazed at the light pollution in Causeway Bay, in particular, the area with huge advertising billboards on and opposite the Park Lane Hotel.

The lights are so bright that I get confused and think it is daylight when in fact it is night.

Is this level of extreme brightness really necessary? What a huge waste of energy.

M. Scully, Discovery Bay

Warning To Electricity Guzzlers

Barclay Crawford – SCMP – Updated on Apr 27, 2008

Electricity consumption will jump by 30 per cent by 2020 if businesses and households do not act to limit power use, a green group has warned.

Friends of the Earth released data for their Power Smart campaign yesterday, saying that based on annual increases over the past decade, consumption would reach 52.8 billion kWh and carbon dioxide emissions would hit 31 million tonnes by 2020. This would lead to more pollution and health problems, Angus Wong, spokesman for the group, said.

Mr Wong said that despite a recent survey showing that 70 per cent of citizens acknowledged they were “informed wasters”, little action was being taken to reduce power consumption.

“Most people know they consume too much but they still do nothing,” Mr Wong said. “The government also still has no concrete or complete energy-saving policies. The European Union is actually on track to reduce consumption by 20 per cent for the same period. Hong Kong needs to act now.”

Friends of the Earth said commercial operations guzzled 66 per cent of the city’s energy and he urged them to find ways to limit use, especially in summer. The campaign launch came a day after the government gazetted a budget measure to offer businesses tax breaks for using greener production equipment.

In the bill before the Legislative Council, eligible equipment will qualify for a 100 per cent tax deduction in the year of purchase. It includes machinery to reduce air pollution, water treatment facilities and noise-minimising construction tools.

Environmentally friendly gear which also attracts tax breaks includes renewable generators for wind, solar and thermal power.

Officials Must Kick Out CLP’s Plans For Extra Spending

Updated on Apr 05, 2008 – SCMP

I see it is business as usual for CLP Power under the revised scheme of control agreement for electricity companies (“CLP places LNG plant on shopping list”, March 31).

Under the previous arrangement, CLP Power was able to generate extra income for shareholders (mainly Exxon) of HK$3.2 billion to HK3.6 billion per annum from capital spending of HK$23.8 billion over the past five years, at the permitted rate of return of 13.5 per cent to 15 per cent per annum. Barely is the ink dry on the new agreement and CLP Power wants to bump that spending up to HK$38 billion, to generate HK$3.7 billion per annum extra income under the next “five-year plan”.

This extra spending is needed to “compensate” for the miserly rate of return of 9.99 per cent now imposed upon it by a heartless administration.

If allowed, this money would come straight out of hard-pressed Hong Kong consumers’ pockets. But what is it all for? In addition to the deeply unpopular and unnecessary liquefied natural gas plant on South Soko Island, we can no doubt look forward to endless roadworks up and down the length of Lantau and the New Territories, upgrading the transmission lines to “super class”.

Only a passing mention was given to the long overdue installation of 1980s technology, finally, to reduce emissions from the notorious coal-fired generating plant at Castle Peak (Hong Kong’s single largest polluter), and none at all to energy conservation measures. At the moment, the more you burn, the less you pay.

Profligate corporate users have no need to economise, and all the incentives are to keep CLP Power generating more electricity, further increasing our carbon footprint, along with its executive remuneration packages.

Padding of budget submissions is an old bureaucratic trick, of course, and, by now, our energy officials at the Environmental Protection Department will be well used to these ruses.

It is to be hoped that the department will take an axe to CLP Power’s more extravagant capital expenditure proposals. The LNG plant is top of the list for the chop, in my view.

John Schofield, Lantau

Get Rid Of Crass Light Shows

22nd March 2008 – SCMP

The article by Charmaine Carvalho (“Frazzle dazzle”, March 17), illuminates the problem of light pollution that is increasingly plaguing our city.

The title of Rosemary Sayer’s biography of tycoon Gordon Wu Ying-sheung is The Man Who Turned the Lights On. Many Wan Chai residents now wish that he would turn them off. His group’s buildings in Queen’s Road East, the Hopewell Centre and QRE Plaza, nightly emit flashing multicoloured displays that turn apartments into discos.

After a day’s work I wish to relax without having my senses constantly bombarded. Hong Kong’s noise and air pollution is bad enough without such crass light shows invading residential neighbourhoods.

Why is Hong Kong wasting so much energy on these displays? The power companies are the major polluters of Hong Kong’s air, and our planet’s fuel resources are finite. Reducing power consumption should be the prime target of a responsible and alert government.

The business sector cannot be relied upon to lead in controlling power consumption.

Y. K. Ho, Wan Chai

Light Pollution Is Plaguing Hong Kong

Frazzle dazzle – Light pollution is plaguing a city that finds it hard to switch off

Charmaine Carvalho – Updated on Mar 17, 2008 – SCMP

The clock says 7pm but it’s hard to tell if it’s night or day in many parts of the city. A combination of neon signs, dazzling store windows and floodlit billboards, each brighter than the next, mask the twilight hours. The night’s so bright these days you almost have to wear shades.

But while they make for pretty travel posters, the overpowering batteries of lights also put a blight on the lives of many people such as Mary Wong Sai-yung. The Fa Yuen Street resident lives opposite the Hoi King shopping arcade, where billboards are lit by five spotlights so powerful that even heavy curtains can’t keep out the glare.

“I find it hard to sleep. My bedroom gets really stuffy since I can’t open the windows,” says the 42-year-old nurse. “The lights are on till 5am although there are few pedestrians on the street after midnight.”

In Causeway Bay, stockbroker Julie Fong Man-lai shares a similar problem. Floodlights at an optical store across from her building on Lee Garden Street bathe her bedroom in a constant glow at night. “It really bothered me when I worked an early morning shift because I had to be in bed early and couldn’t sleep,” she says. That’s no longer a problem now that she’s on a later shift, but Fong still thinks it’s a waste of electricity.

Are such complaints the gripes of an overly demanding populace? An inspection of fixtures in Causeway Bay and Mong Kok with electronic engineer Henry Chung Shu-hung one evening reveals what people have to put up with.

Perhaps the most extreme example is found at Windsor House, where some 60 floodlights illuminate four billboards on the side of the building. Using a meter to determine the lux, a measure of light intensity, Chung found that this translates to street level illumination of 9,000 lux.

That’s almost as bright as being outdoors on a clear day – about 10,000 lux, says Chung, an associate dean of science and engineering at City University. And it’s 18 times the light intensity recorded at the Victoria Park tennis courts – 500 lux – where floodlights are positioned to ensure visibility of a whizzing ball.

A spokesman for Chinese Estates Holdings, which manages Windsor House, says existing floodlights are needed for building renovations and the level will be reviewed when planning for permanent lighting.

Hysan Development, which has a brightly lit construction site billboard on Lee Garden Road, says the lights were installed for safety.

Emerging from Yau Ma Tei MTR station, Bank Centre on bustling Sai Yeung Choi Street catches the eye as another example of lighting overkill. The glare from its lights raises the intensity to about 4,000 lux – almost three times as bright as the recommended level when doing detailed drawings and other work requiring fine attention. A nearby newsstand has followed suit, installing metal halide lamps that cast radiance of more than 2,000 lux on the surroundings.

According to the Environmental Protection Department (EPD), the government acts to ensure that facilities such as advertising light boxes are “structurally safe; will not become a serious risk of fire; will not interfere with road, marine and aviation traffic; will not disfigure the natural beauty of any scenery or affect injuriously the amenities of any locality”.

But people whose lives are disrupted by over-illumination have no course for redress because brightness levels are not regulated. Wong and her neighbours have complained to government departments and the management of Hoi King, to little avail.

Last year an internet campaign run by environmental group Green Sense drew 77 complaints about wasteful and annoying lighting, including floodlights that are kept switched on during the day, empty offices that are lit all night and construction sites that remain ablaze when work has stopped.

The group sent complaint letters to building and shop owners after checking lux levels at the sites, but few took action. The minority that responded were residential managers concerned that occupants were affected.

Environment affairs manager for Friends of the Earth, Hahn Chu Hon-keung, says Hong Kong has become much more ostentatious in its lighting since 1998 when restrictions were lifted following the closure of Kai Tak airport. That eased during the post-Sars downturn when people were trying to cut costs, but he says the respite was brief.

While much of the world strives to save energy and reduce use of fossil fuels to curb the effects of global warming, Hong Kong is blithely powering on. Electricity consumption for lighting rose 15.6 per cent between 1997 and 2005 – yet the population grew by just 4.9 per cent.

Our profligacy with lighting feeds into a harmful spiral from the so-called heat-island effect, says Edward Ng Yan-yung, a professor of architecture at the Chinese University. Heat from millions of bulbs raises the air temperature, prompting people to turn up their air conditioners, which in turn pump more heat into the environment even as they cool the interiors of buildings. Meanwhile, more fuel is burned to supply power for lighting and cooling, increasing carbon emissions and air pollution.

But because the eye is drawn to the brightest objects, advertisers and shops will compete to be the brightest on their street unless rules are introduced to curb wastage, says Chu. “Some cities have introduced rules on lighting. But even if [regulation] is not common, we have a unique situation in Hong Kong where residential and commercial areas may not be separate.”

Light pollution takes a toll on health: studies in the US have found that it can increase stress and hypertension, aggravating cardiovascular disease. Over-illumination at night disrupts the production of melatonin and can aggravate heart problems. Several published studies also suggest a link between extended exposure to light at night and increased risk of oestrogen-related problems such as breast cancer in women.

Lighting complaints to the EPD have risen steadily from 33 in 2005 to 40 last year. Friends of the Earth will soon release a book of cases studies detailing the plight of residents adversely affected by living in brightness. Chu says he’s dealt with more than 10 cases in the past year, including an elderly woman in Mong Kok who has not been able to sleep in her bedroom for months because of the glare from a sign outside. “Instead, she’s forced to sleep on a sofa in her living room.” In another example, three flat owners got tired of battling the shopping centre opposite their building and moved out.

People must come forward to complain about light pollution in order to push for regulation to control over-illumination, Chu says. “When we talk of sustainable development, we must think about the social [impact] as well.”

Intrusive lighting is testing the public’s tolerance. In a survey in Mong Kok of pedestrians’ views on lighting conditions last year, Green Sense found that 87 per cent of 485 people polled believed there were excessive spotlights on billboards, 84 per cent thought it was a waste of electricity and 71 per cent said the light and heat made them uncomfortable. Most people (77 per cent) felt the government had failed to control outdoor lighting.

Detractors tend to dismiss green groups’ proposals as calling for a virtual blackout, but activists insist what they’re fighting is unnecessary and intrusive installations, such as flashing signs and spotlights whose glare is reflected into homes, and wasteful practices such as leaving lights on all night in empty offices.

“We need to show that it will not jeopardise business or living standards if some lighting is turned off,” Chu says. “Hong Kong is a high-consumption, high-wastage and high-pollution city. Lighting is a good platform for people to rethink our lifestyle.”

Light it right

Several countries have begun to introduce rules to control outdoor lighting including Chile, Australia, Canada, Greece, Italy and the Czech Republic. The town of Bisei in Okayama prefecture was the first in Japan to introduce curbs through a 1989 ordinance. In the US, several states, towns and major cities have introduced anti-light pollution laws.

Measures adopted in various urban centres include:

* Shading outdoor lights Requiring external fixtures to be shielded to prevent wasteful upward light distribution and glare intruding into adjacent properties, with illumination contained to the target area as far as possible.
* Time restrictions Requiring non-essential lighting (including display signs) to be switched off after business hours, leaving only lights needed for security.
* Bans on uplighting Some towns require all externally lit signs, displays, building and aesthetic lighting to be installed at the top and directed downward.
* Curbs on projected light Where search lights, spotlights or lasers are continuously used outdoors, they may not be projected above a horizontal plane.

Sources: UK Select Committee on Science and Technology Seventh Report, Wired

Saving grace

Besides urging consumers to switch off unnecessary lights and reduce the use of spotlights, officials and green groups are calling for a switch to energy-saving bulbs.

“Regular bulbs have to be replaced every two months, energy-saving ones last up to two years,” says Green Sense project manager Gabrielle Ho Ka-po.

Should we immediately refit all light fixtures with energy-saving bulbs? Henry Chung Shu-hung, associate dean of science and engineering at City University, says the new, energy-efficient lights have their drawbacks.

Some types of low-energy bulbs don’t last as long as they claim. And because the low-energy compact lights contain small amounts of mercury, a toxic heavy metal, disposing spent bulbs is an issue. That’s why green groups are also calling on the government to set up a comprehensive recycling system when they promote the use of energy-saving light bulbs, says Hahn Chu of Friends of the Earth.

In Britain, consumers are advised to seal bulbs in plastic bags for recycling.