by Harry Phibbs
In a speech in New York recently the Czech president, Vaclav Klaus, said: "The problem is not global warming but the ideology which uses or misuses it – it has gradually turned into the most efficient vehicle for advocating extensive government intervention into all fields of life and for suppressing human freedom."
One does not have to agree with his premise that global warming is not a problem to spot that combating global warming is used as a justification for great expansion of state spending and state control.
How hypocritical this is. Constant sanctimonious nannying from politicians and officials to households and businesses about reducing their carbon footprint. But what about the public sector's own stonking great carbon footprint?
In fact, environmental concerns often offer a reason for the state to do less. One significant example is street lighting. I don't think anyone is advocating doing away with street lighting, but could it not be reduced quite significantly?
The Department for Transport will shortly publish new research expected to cast doubt on whether reducing street lighting would reduce road safety. Hitherto street lighting was reckoned to reduce traffic accidents by "up to" 30%. Now our entire island is so brightly lit that comparisons are difficult, but there is much greater scepticism.
Edward Bunting, a senior policy adviser to the DfT suggests that the distraction of even temporary blinding of drivers by over-lighting needs greater consideration.
The British Astronomical Association have lobbied away, setting up the Campaign for Dark Skies. They even have a celebrity endorsement in the shape of Brian May, guitarist with Queen. "Our children have a right to see the stars," he says. "We all do."
The campaign laments "the smog that hangs over all major cities at night (this smog is usually yellow thanks to ill-designed sodium street-lights). The iris in your eye shrinks over the lens to stop this back-scattered light (the smog) from blinding you – but that also prevents you from seeing fainter stars."
It means Britain is falling behind in this field: "Amateur astronomers also routinely discover comets, asteroids (sometimes, potentially hazardous asteroids), and monitor the brightness behaviour of thousands of stars. However, light pollution is seriously undermining the ability of British based astronomers to take the lead in this cutting-edge field of science. Amateurs from less polluted countries, such as America, Australia, etc, are far more successful."
Street lighting accounts for 566,000 tonnes of carbon dioxide being pumped into the atmosphere a year. In their Quality of Life policy paper, produced for the Tories, Zac Goldsmith and John Gummer, suggest that reducing street lighting could be a significant help towards C02 savings.
More than 20 local councils have reduced street lighting. The savings to the council taxpayer can be significant. An estimated £122m is wasted each year on unnecessary street lighting in Britain. Powys saved £225,000 by cutting back on street lighting. Some of the lights they switched off have been reinstated after concerns from residents, but most have stayed off.
Essex is trimming £1m off its £3.8m street lighting budget by turning some lights off between midnight and 5am. Interestingly there is some suggestion that crime has fallen where this been tried. Sometimes criminals find light rather useful as they go about their work – for instance when breaking into cars. If the evidence is inconclusive perhaps one way to settle the concerns about crime would be to use some of money saved from street lighting for more beat policing.
Those who want lightness all through the night can live in Iceland or Greenland or Sweden, then zip down to the south pole in winter. But for most of us there is something more than all the economic and environmental arguments. There is the instinctive one that chimes with human nature. Give us back our dark nights.This piece originally appeared in the Guardian Photo credit: flickr/blink+, Creative Commons license.