Governments that invest in air pollution control measures can save billions of dollars as health care costs are slashed, worker productivity soars and ecosystems flourish, according to a report released today in Dubai by the United Nations Environmental Programme.

These savings, along with other economic gains such as sounder bridges, public buildings and other infrastructure that endure less corrosive air pollutants can be six times greater than the initial investments in techniques and equipment to curb air pollution, says UNEP’s Global Environment Outlook Year Book 2006.

Released at the environmental agency’s Global Ministerial Environment Forum now underway in the United Arab Emirates, this year’s Year Book focuses on energy’s impact on air quality.

The leaders gathering at the Forum, which ends tomorrow, are looking at ways to deliver sustainable energy and environmentally safe tourist activities. Klaus Toepfer, UNEP’s Executive Director, said governments should set the framework for industry, trade unions and civil society to promote energy efficiency and diversify the world’s sources of energy away from fossil fuels.

“The benefits, as the new GEO Year Book shows, are potentially huge, covering health, environment, improved management of natural resources, reducing the risks of climate change and, last but not in least, improved security regionally, nationally and at the level of households,” Mr. Toepfer said.

The report’s findings on the economic savings emanating from investments in air pollution controls stem from work by the United States Environmental Protection Agency and the experiences of city governments in Mexico City and Santiago, Chile. The United States agency, for example, estimates that the economic benefits of the country’s Clean Air Act will total $690 billion over the 20-year period that ends in 2010. A Santiago study assessed the financial benefits stemming from compliance with the Santiago Decontamination Plan at $4 billion during a 15-year period. These studies mirror a new report by the European Commission on achieving improved air quality standards by 2020. The Commission estimates that an investment of around €7 billion to reduce air pollution will deliver €42 billion in economic benefits as a result of “fewer premature deaths, less sickness, fewer hospital admissions and improved labour productivity.”

The Year Book finds that indoor air pollution may be responsible for up to 2.4 million premature deaths a year while outdoor air pollution from industries and vehicle may trigger about 800,000 premature deaths annually, with 65 per cent of the deaths occurring in the developing countries of Asia. In a related development at the Forum, environment and health ministers agreed to a new global initiative aimed at making chemicals safer for humans and the planet. Called the Strategic Approach to International Chemicals Management, the new initiative covers a wide range of activities surrounding the manufacture and use of chemicals, from harmonizing labeling to dealing with obsolete and stockpiled products. It also carries provisions for national centres aimed at helping countries, especially in the developing world, train staff in chemical safety and to deal with spills and accidents. The voluntary agreement puts governments on track to meet a commitment made at the World Summit on Sustainable Development in 2002.