A brighter path forward – How street lights create safety today while risking increased use of coal

Looking at a map of the world at night most of it is cast in darkness, but there are clusters of light. Mostly concentrated in Europe, the US, India, the coasts of China, and some of the Gulf countries, we can see the light pollution from cities filled with street lights, neon bill boards, and lit homes. This does not mean that the darker areas are empty, or that they will remain in the dark forever. These lights are a show of the wonders of electricity, and they are all contributing to better and safer lives for those living there. But these lights also consume energy, a large amount of it, and in a way they are symbolic of the inequality in fighting carbon emissions. The so called developing countries aim for the same bright future that can be seen from space, an ambition that will inevitably contribute to the global pollution we should be desperate to tame.

Studies indicate that the need for lighting in general will have increased by 80% between 2005 and 2030. This, like so many other environmental discussions, places development in a position at odds with environmental concerns. It also points to the current inequality of energy consumption with those bright spots on the map showing who consumes the most, and not only in lightbulbs. According to a study by Robert Grow made in 2008, the street lighting in the 10 largest metropolitan areas in the United States were the cause of over 2.3 million tons of CO2 being released annually. That is the equivalent of 212,000 vehicles on the roads.

As a way to save both money and curb their carbon emissions, several counties in England have limited their street lighting, with part time blackouts during the night. The program in the UK county of Essex (pop. 1,802,200) has supposedly limited their carbon emissions by 8000 tons per year, as well as claiming to save 1£ million per year in electricity bills. However, there are still those who have reservations. A survey made by the AA shows that around 60 % of the respondents are concerned about increases in vandalism and serious crime due to the lack of light, and according to the Royal Society on the Prevention of Accidents, many worry about an increase in traffic accidents as well.

Ensuring vehicle safety is a significant element of the role of street lighting. With the traffic of motorized vehicles increasing all over the world, so have traffic accidents, as well as the number of deaths and injuries that they cause. This is particularly apparent in developing countries, which account for almost 90 % of the traffic fatalities. Many of these lives belonged to pedestrians in low visibility conditions during dusk and at night. These are also deaths that are greatly reduced when adequate street lighting is introduced.

Going back to the UK survey previously mentioned, it also appears that the respondents had reason to worry about crime. There is academic research which suggests that increased lighting in a neighborhood prevents crime through the increased risk of the offender getting caught and due to the investment signaling that the neighborhood is worthy of concern. In India the lack of street lights has been blamed for rapes, with protesters saying that the dark facilitated the abduction and rape of a five year old in Bengaluru this June. With the municipality installing street light just days later, it seems like they too agree with the dangers caused by inadequate street lighting. Current US Secretary of Energy, Rick Perry, even agrees, stating that fossil fuels can prevent rape in Africa by making sure street lights brighten the streets.

A country who has taken these statistics to heart is Ghana. The government hopes to not only reduce traffic accidents, but also to boost investments and improve living standards all over the country. Indeed, investing in public street lights is promoted as a way to stimulate financial development by the World Bank; the safety of bright streets increases the time safely spent on dining and entertainment, allowing businesses to stay open longer.

Despite Perry’s belief in fossil fuels being the solution for bringing electricity and light to African villages, there is hope for those wishing for a more sustainable way to achieve it. Many of the African villages that Perry spoke of are unattached to an electrical grid, and attachment remains a costly process. Many now hail off the grid solar panels as the solution, as it brings sustainable electricity and lighting without large, state investments in infrastructure. This model can be used for both public and private electricity, providing a solution to the health hazards of kerosene and allowing women larger freedoms such as increased opportunities for education when they don’t have to gather biomaterial on a daily basis. It also gives children a better chance at an education when they are study after nightfall. A reliable source of electricity could also open up economic development through new form of work, longer business days, and further access to the internet as a source of knowledge and information.

One way to limit the actual energy consumption of street lights is by replacing older, more energy consuming lights with LED lights. This is of course not only good for the hopes of reaching climate targets and reducing energy consumption, but also has economic value. In 2003 the Thai capital of Bangkok spent 145 000 US dollars a year in maintenance alone for their older high-pressure sodium street lights, which have now been replaced by LEDs. Many cities spend as much as 40 % of their power bill on street lights which supposedly can be reduced by 60% using LED lighting and other new technologies.

In the end, and as always, the dilemma remains. The improvements caused by installing street lights are needed. On the other hand, we are far from nondependent on fossil fuels, and even if the energy consumption in US metropolitan areas decreases by 60 %, there is still almost 1 million tons of CO2 in ten US cities alone. In Essex, they have so far not seen any conclusive rise in car accidents or crime since the start of their part-night lighting program but it might still be playing with human lives if it is implemented in other places.

Ebba Bergström

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