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New report finds 1 million deaths could be prevented by targeting change in one industry: '[It] holds the largest potential'

Fortunately, the report also offers some hope.

Fortunately, the report also offers some hope.

Photo Credit: iStock

When oil and coal providers dig underground, they unearth more than just the fuel sources they're looking for. They also find methane.

A new report by the International Energy Agency says that the methane being released could be responsible for 1 million unnecessary deaths by midcentury unless the industry takes immediate steps to stop it, Bloomberg revealed.

What's happening?

Oil, gas, and coal are considered dirty energy, sometimes also referred to as "fossil fuels" — flammable materials made up of the remains of prehistoric plants and animals that are found under the ground today. Because these fuels formed through natural, uncontrolled processes, they aren't a perfect mixture. Pockets of heavy oil or coal exist alongside lighter, less dense methane, as National Geographic has explained.

That methane can escape into the atmosphere as a gas when dirty energy companies are digging around, and according to the new report — which was prepared by the IEA, the United Nations Environment Programme, and the Climate and Clean Air Coalition — that's exactly what's happening.

Why does escaping methane matter?

All dirty energy fuels release toxic fumes and heat-trapping carbon dioxide gas when they're burned. But methane is itself a heat-trapping gas with up to 80 times more planet-warming power than carbon dioxide. When it escapes into the atmosphere, it contributes dramatically to the rising temperature of the planet — about 30% of the total historical rise since the Industrial Revolution, Bloomberg says, based on the IEA report.

A new study also revealed that the methane fuel or "natural gas" industry is having just as much of an impact on the planet as coal.

According to the IEA's report, if methane continues to be released without being checked, it will cause 1 million premature deaths by ozone exposure in the next few decades, plus almost 100 million tons of crop losses and 85 billion hours of lost labor. Besides the lives being lost, these problems will cause about $260 billion in economic damages, according to Bloomberg.

What can be done about methane emissions?

Fortunately, the report also offers some hope, Bloomberg says. "More than 75% of methane emissions from oil and gas operations and half of emissions from coal today can be abated with existing technology, often at low cost," the IEA said in the report.

The IEA found that if the oil, gas, and coal industries act decisively now, much or all of those potential lost lives and economic damage can be spared. 

"The fossil fuel sector likely holds the largest potential for rapid and low-cost reductions in methane emissions," the IEA said, per Bloomberg.

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