The Thematic Strategy on Air Quality was among the seven environmental strategies shelved in July amid concerns over costs before resurfacing and being pushed through as those supporting the environment on the commission overcame opposition from those who felt the economy should be given a higher priority.

The revised strategy has made concessions to the business vote, shaving almost €5 billion of the expected annual costs of the measures it outlines.

Previously the legislation was expected to cost an estimated €12 billion per year once fully implemented in 2020 but the streamlined version now looks set to cost only €7.1 billion.

Supporters of the strategy have always maintained the costs would be dwarfed by the saving from health budgets.

The commission has estimated that the Strategy will deliver health benefits worth at least €42 billion per year through fewer premature deaths, less sickness, fewer hospital admissions and improved labour productivity.

The medical argument has clearly carried weight behind the scenes as the cost-cutting has mainly been made to environmental protection, while those elements designed to promote human health have escaped largely unscathed.

While looking at most major air pollutants, the strategy focuses on particulates and ground-level ozone pollution because these pose the greatest danger to human health.

By 2020 the strategy aims to cut the annual number of premature deaths from air pollution-related diseases by almost 40% from the 2000 level.

It also aims to substantially reduce the area of forests and other ecosystems suffering damage from airborne pollutants such as ozone and acid rain.

Environment Commisioner Stavros Dimas said: “The air strategy will substantially improve Europe’s air quality.

“It will prevent thousands of premature deaths from pollution-related illnesses and drastically reduce damage to crops, forests and other ecosystems.

Although there will be costs involved in improving air quality, these will be offset at least fivefold by the benefits to society as a whole.”

By Sam Bond

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