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Illustration: Rebecca Zisser / Axios

BONN, Germany -- The future of coal in a carbon-constrained world depends on technically feasible but prohibitively expensive technology that captures emissions from coal power plants. That technology, in turn, has become politically and inextricably linked to coal, despite the fact that most of it right now is used for purposes separate from coal.

Why it matters: Coal has been a popular topic here at a global climate conference hosted by the United Nations precisely for its unpopularity among many of the thousands of political leaders, activists and experts attending. On Thursday, 15 nations announced plans to phase out coal by 2030. Meanwhile, the capture technology itself is getting caught up in the political theater.

Coal's technology problem

The UN's scientific body concluded in its most recent assessment of climate science in 2014 that if this technology isn't widely deployed, it would be 138% more expensive to keep global temperatures below a roughly 2-degree Celsius rise over the next century.

Today, only 17 such projects exist around the world, according to a report released at the conference this week by the Global CCS Institute, which was founded in 2009 and funded by fossil-fuel companies and others to more widely deploy the technology. Just two of those are capturing carbon from coal, the dirtiest fossil fuel that needs the technology the most.

Technology's coal problem

The other 15 large-scale carbon capture projects around the world are capturing industrial emissions of one kind or another, which are often processes that inherently emit greenhouse gas emissions and can't easily be swapped out with renewable energy.

"We keep saying, 'I'm not here to promote coal use or oil use or natural gas use," said Brad Page, head of the institute, in an interview at the conference. "We, the institute, only exist because climate change is a problem. There is no other reason for us to exist."

The environmental group Clean Air Task Force, which works to promote the technology as a solution to climate change, cites World Bank data to say that if China's industrial emissions, which come from processes that make steel, cement and related products, were their own country, they would be the third-largest emitter in the world.

But many liberal politicians, including those who traveled to the conference, say the technology, which has the acronym CCS, is just a prop the Trump administration uses to push coal without it. Top White House officials hosted an event here earlier this week touting the role cleaner fossil fuels and nuclear power should fill in addressing climate change.

"CCS is is principally used by the Trump administration to camouflage their interest just to burn coal without it," said Democratic Gov. Jay Inslee of Washington, in an interview here. "If they came here and said, 'We're not going to promote coal-based technology unless it is in fact CCS, that would have—."

He pivoted mid-sentence to tell a story about a conversation he had with then-President George W. Bush about the viability of the technology, which was facing economic challenges back then much like it is today.

Go deeper

Updated 5 hours ago - World

U.S. airstrike kills senior al-Qaeda leader in Syria, DOD says

A displacement camp near the village of Qah in Syria's northwestern Idlib province. Photo: Ahmad Al-Atrash/AFP via Getty Images

A U.S. airstrike in northwest Syria on Friday killed senior al-Qaeda leader Abdul Hamid al-Matar, U.S. Central Command said in a statement.

Why it matters: Syria serves as a "safe haven" for the extremist group to plan external operations, according to U.S. Army Maj. John Rigsbee.

Updated 10 hours ago - Politics & Policy

Giuliani associate Lev Parnas convicted of campaign finance crimes

Lev Parnas, a former associate of then-President Donald Trump’s personal lawyer Rudy Giuliani. Photo: Stefani Reynolds/Bloomberg via Getty Images

Florida businessman Lev Parnas was convicted Friday on charges of conspiracy to make foreign contributions to political campaigns, according to multiple outlets.

Why it matters: Prosecutors said Parnas, then an associate of former President Donald Trump's personal lawyer Rudy Giuliani, funneled over $150,000 from a Russian businessman into U.S. campaigns as part of an effort to land licenses in the U.S.'s legal cannabis industry.

Supreme Court agrees to hear challenges to Texas abortion law

Photo: Saul Loeb/AFP via Getty Images

The Supreme Court on Friday agreed to hear two cases challenging Texas' abortion law, which bans the procedure as soon as six weeks into pregnancy, but left the law in place in the meantime.

Why it matters: The court is moving extraordinarily fast on the Texas cases, compressing into just a few days a process that normally takes months. And that schedule means the court will take up Texas' ban a month before it hears another major abortion case — a challenge to Mississippi's own 2018 ban on abortions after 15 weeks.