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BAA Journal 2019 April

The BAA Commission for Dark Skies: thirty years of defending the stars

Journal issue: 2019 April
Pages: 68–70

It should be obvious to all thinking people that the night sky is both a site of special scientific interest and an area of outstanding natural beauty. Yet it remains the only part of our environment without protection in UK law. Praiseworthy efforts are being made in UK Dark Sky Reserves – such as Exmoor and Galloway Forest Park – to conserve the night-time environment, but in too many places night is being turned into day. Skyglow still veils the stars to a greater or lesser extent across large areas of the UK. It might therefore be surmised that those who have battled for decades to restore the beauty of the heavens and ensure the optimum night sky for all, wherever they live, have failed and that the hill has been just too steep to climb. Central and local government, within whose brief the protection of the environment holds an important place, have been slow to realise that real control of light pollution will not only bring back the stars to millions. It will also have beneficial results in the fields of human health, climate, energy and money-saving, crime prevention and the recovery of our threatened biodiversity.

In 1989 the Committee for Dark Skies (CfDS), soon to change its name to the Campaign for Dark Skies, was founded by concerned members of the BAA. Since 2015 it has been the Commission for Dark Skies, with the subtitle of ‘Protect the Night’ on its literature, website and banners. Why the second change? Supporters and committee members of the CfDS had many times reported comments from the public and from individuals in organisations such as the BBC that the word ‘Campaign’ suggested a political, vaguely militant or ‘sabre-rattling’ group. The BAA Council ratified the change on 2015 May 27.

The subtitle ‘Protect the Night’ (taken up in 2012) reflects the fact that, like all the anti-light-pollution movements in the developed world, we cannot separate our dark-skies efforts from the need to act upon and raise awareness of all the other negative aspects of stray artificial light. Worldwide, there are now many dedicated groups working against the depredations of what has now become known in dark-sky groups’ parlance as ALAN (Artificial Light At Night).

The CfDS has since its inception aimed to work positively with those who make, choose and install lamps, and with all levels of government. Its initiatives are focused upon influencing ever-changing lighting design and stressing ‘star-quality’ illumination rather than calling for lights to be switched off, unless they are unnecessary. The motto has always been: ‘the right amount of light, at the right time and only where needed.’ Astronomers dealing with owners of poor-quality lights should remember that the vast majority of people do not share their interest in astronomy and consider (as does the CfDS) that light is a very positive thing. But of course, many owners of exterior lighting do not realise that light in any application – sport, decorative illumination, safety, amenity – can be directed exactly where it is needed without spill, given the will to protect the environment and prevent light intrusion elsewhere.

After years of receiving a disappointingly lukewarm government response to calls for action, the CfDS was instrumental in the 2003 decision of the Parliamentary Science and Technology Select Committee to investigate and report on ‘Light Pollution and Astronomy’. CfDS representatives met the eleven MPs of the Select Committee at the Royal Observatory, Greenwich, and later gave evidence in the Houses of Parliament. The committee’s report appeared on 2003 Oct 6,[1] and came out very strongly in favour of firm control of waste light: ‘We regret that PPARC and the Government have adopted a defeatist attitude towards light pollution and astronomy in the UK’. The report recommended that light be on the list of statutory nuisances.

As a result, DEFRA (the Department of the Environment, Food & Rural Affairs) finally conceded that light should become a statutory nuisance. This became a reality within the Clean Neighbourhoods and Environment (CNE) Bill in the 2005 parliamentary session. Inexplicably, transport premises (bus and railway stations, docks etc.) were excluded. No explanation for these exclusions has ever been forthcoming, and the CfDS continues to try to have them annulled. The CNE Bill does not specifically protect the night sky, but offers some redress to householders troubled by intrusive lights. Sadly, it is not easy to get some local authorities to act in cases of light intrusion.

It is of concern that the current Government’s 25-year Environmental Plan (25YEP), announced in 2017, does not embrace equally all parts of our environment. The night sky is not mentioned. In the Plan, there could have been perhaps a final opportunity to restore the benefits of the natural night; however, there is but a brief mention of light pollution, and no statement of intention to act against it. In 2017 September, CfDS members met DEFRA officials in London to discuss this, but despite promises of action, nothing came of the meeting. A DEFRA official freely admitted that personnel were so busy with a certain EU-related matter that they had little time for anything else.

It was widely believed by light pollution campaigners a few years ago that the introduction of LED exterior lighting, which is rapidly replacing other types, would lead to improvements in both terrestrial light control and night sky visibility. This type of lighting, so versatile and easily directed, is less likely to send its emissions needlessly into the environment if properly managed. It has indeed brought improvement to the night-time environment in many places, but sadly, the great opportunity offered by LED technology to lessen light pollution and restore natural darkness has been largely mishandled. Light from modern LED exterior installations is almost everywhere escaping its targets, and very often is far too bright for the lighting task. Skyglow, once noticeably orange, is changing its colour to a grey-white sheen over urban areas.

Many LED white-light sources (‘cool white’) have very high colour temperatures (CCTs) in excess of 3000K. These bright white LED types, often blue-rich, cause concern among environmentalists, health professionals and astronomers. If too bright, they cause glare and reflections from surfaces, with emissions scattered high into the atmosphere. They may cause more skyglow than previous low colour-temperature lights: the benefits of otherwise good downward direction of light may therefore be negated by high CCT. The dazzling glare from poorly aimed ‘Rottweiler’ LED lamps on houses and commercial buildings is becoming a major contributor to twenty-first century light pollution. These types are appearing everywhere, usually with a yellow rectangle as the LED source. Such lights, almost always far too bright for the lighting task, provide a screen behind which criminal activity goes on unseen. They are anti-lights, concealing rather than revealing. Furthermore, such lights in secluded places are courtesy lights for burglars.

The CfDS, in concert with the CPRE and other environmental groups, strongly argues that in lighting the precautionary principle should be applied.[2] The ill effects of over-bright white lighting should be fully and independently investigated before mass installation is permitted. Currently, LED lighting involves almost no environmental impact assessment, definitive study on human health or democratic sanction; no investigation or review of likely effects; no general policy on beneficial luminaire design or installation; and no concern for its effect upon an already degraded night sky.

The CfDS calls for: – No more blue-rich white and/or over-bright lighting installations until proven safe for humans and wildlife, and adapted so as not to increase skyglow; – more scientific research on the effects of artificial light at night, including independent environmental and health impact studies; – revisions in lighting codes and standards to ensure that new technology works for living things and for the terrestrial and celestial environments, not against them; – obligatory use of star-quality, ‘warmer’ and glare-free lighting on roads and for domestic/ commercial applications. Perhaps the best way to ensure that future generations live in a country where good lighting is the norm is to have proper standards stipulated and enforced at the planning stage when any new development is being proposed. It has long been the aim of the CfDS to persuade planning policymakers to include lighting in their directives.

Over thirty years, the original small group of CfDS members has grown into a committee of 13 and a network of over 100 volunteer local officers. Also, committed supporters subscribe to the CfDS’ twice-yearly newsletter and a handful of astronomy groups and individuals donate occasionally to the fighting fund. The BAA makes an annual grant, though of course its many other sections have to be funded too, so any additional help is much appreciated. Lighting professionals readily accept that the CfDS has accelerated great changes in UK lighting practices over three decades.

Public awareness of the problem is widespread. However, the enormous rock against which astronomers and environmentalists chip is the unwillingness of central government to formulate a proper, all-embracing lighting policy. Our French colleagues of the National Association for the Protection of the Night Sky and Environment (ANPCEN) report on a new national lighting law,[3] passed on 2018 Dec 28 and which comes into full force in France on 2020 Jan 1. It applies to exterior lights in all public and private areas. ANPCEN official Pierre Brunet writes: ‘all new lighting installations shall comply as follows. Their Upward Light Ratio will be less than 1%; their Correlated Colour Temperature will be less than 3000K; and their light flux will be less than 35 lumens/square metre. Lighting of closed activity areas, e.g. sports venues, must be switched off by one hour after the end of the activity. Existing lighting devices that can be adjusted to comply with the Act will have to be adjusted before January 1st, 2020.’

The CfDS has strong links with similar movements overseas, and works with other European dark-sky organisations on a concerted approach to the European Parliament. Members have attended many international meetings and have taken petitions to legislative bodies. There are now dark-sky movements in most of the world’s developed countries, most recently China and Saudi Arabia.

The CfDS has been represented at all annual European and World Dark-Sky Symposia, the 2018 meeting having been staged in Utah, USA. More than half of UK local authorities have now embarked upon switch-offs or dimming programmes for night-time lighting, in a bid to save energy and money. Large savings have been made. Upsurges in crime and disorder predicted by sensationalist newspapers have not materialised; in fact, crime rates almost always decrease in darkened areas, while road accident rates are generally unchanged. The CfDS supports switch-off initiatives if it can be shown that they cause no negative trends.

Light ‘art’ is a growing concern, with landscapes threatened by projects involving floodlighting of the natural environment at night. The CfDS has been working with the CPRE against some of the more environmentally-unfriendly schemes. For example, our interventions contributed to the abandonment of a reckless scheme to shine 15-mile long laser beams across rural Hampshire (including the New Forest, a National Park) by Southampton City Council. CfDS also collaborates with the CPRE in an annual nationwide star count project, to raise public awareness of light pollution.

Looking at the Commission’s achievements and future challenges from the perspective of 2019, perhaps the two most valuable things that the CfDS has done are to have contributed to a trend in better-directed lighting, and to have alerted the population in general to the fact that lighting is not always a good thing. The present energy ‘crunch’ can serve only to accelerate better lighting practice.

The two greatest hurdles the CfDS still has to surmount are the false public perception that light – the brighter the better, in some minds – is somehow an infallible guarantee of security, and the inaction on light pollution of the great mass of amateur astronomers. If all who care about the night sky lent their voices to the movement for darker skies, a solution would be sooner in coming. Not everybody wants to be a full-time campaigner, but there are so many ways in which the individual can ‘spread the word’. Spare a moment to look at www.britastro.org/dark-skies/cfds_about.php?topic=join, which suggests courses of action.

Notes

1 The full report can be viewed at www.parliament.the-stationery-office.co.uk/pa/cm/cmsctech.htm#reports

2 The precautionary principle: UNESCO’s Earth Charter states that the prevention of harm before it happens is the best method of environmental protection. When knowledge is limited, apply a precautionary approach. See www.unesco.org/education/tlsf/mods/theme_a/img/02_earthcharter.pdf

3 See www.anpcen.fr; select Nouveaux arrêtés relatifs aux nuisances lumineux. (‘Translate’ feature available).