© 2015, Nature Publishing Group. All rights reserved. Since the 1970s nighttime satellite images of the Earth from space have provided a striking illustration of the extent of artificial light. Meanwhile, growing awareness of adverse impacts of artificial light at night on scientific astronomy, human health, ecological processes and aesthetic enjoyment of the night sky has led to recognition of light pollution as a significant global environmental issue. Links between economic activity, population growth and artificial light are well documented in rapidly developing regions. Applying a novel method to analysis of satellite images of European nighttime lights over 15 years, we show that while the continental trend is towards increasing brightness, some economically developed regions show more complex patterns with large areas decreasing in observed brightness over this period. This highlights that opportunities exist to constrain and even reduce the environmental impact of artificial light pollution while delivering cost and energy-saving benefits.