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.

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