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Africa needs country-specific narratives for a clean energy future

Ahead of COP27, academics from 50 institutions have called for a shift in how politicians, funders and researchers think about the clean energy transition in the African continent, as a new study highlights radically different energy needs across countries

Africa led energy narratives illustration

Published in world-leading journal Nature Energy this week, the research was carried out by a team of 40 African researchers and co-authors from institutes including University College London, the UN Economic Commission, the Climate Compatible Growth Programme and the University of Oxford.

Until now, they maintain, the global north has both dominated African energy conversations and tended to think of the continent as a homogenous collective with similar energy needs and net zero paths. By exploring the energy systems of four exemplar African countries – Ethiopia, South Africa, Mozambique and Burkina Faso – the authors spell out how wrong that assumption is.

For example, in Burkina Faso, where electricity access is below 5% in rural areas, hybrid solar PV–diesel systems can offer a cost-efficient avenue to support development. On the other hand, Ethiopia is already a green growth powerhouse with 90% hydropower and cheap solar and wind resources to support further development. The research reveals very different energy systems and needs across Africa.

Dr Stephanie Hirmer, Senior Researcher in Climate Compatible Growth at the Department’s Energy and Power Group, and a co-author in the paper, says, “One core challenge is balancing social and economic objectives. A one-size fits all approach simply does not work, decisions need to be informed by local context and considered over varying timescales. International drivers and short-term objectives can be impediments to local development”. 

The paper coincides with a period of intense debate around fossil fuel versus renewables use by African countries. Leading African institutes and scholars have described pressure by Western leaders on African countries to not use their fossil fuel reserves as ‘hypocrisy.’ Meanwhile, moves by Western countries like the U.K. to open up remaining fossil fuel resources in light of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine have sent mixed messages about their net zero commitments.

A further analysis of all 54 African countries highlights that each nation faces different starting points, solutions and uncertainties for using renewables or fossil fuels to meet development objectives and will therefore have a different pathway to success.

The authors point out that research has consistently shown that renewable energy offers huge benefits in Africa and around the world, including growth and job creation, improved climate change resilience and better public health. Natural gas investments, on the other hand, have substantial risk of creating future stranded assets for African countries, with little research on the extent of their impact or potential mitigation strategies.

"With several African countries, including Mozambique, on the brink of making long-term natural gas commitments, it is vital that national leaders have the information they need to make informed choices about economic, social, and environmental goals," says Dr Philipp Trotter, from the University of Wuppertal and the Smith School of Enterprise and the Environment, University of Oxford, ‘Currently, this isn’t the case. Decisions these countries make now have implications for decades down the line."

"Country-specific, evidence-based energy options and pathways for implementation are now urgently needed across Africa," says Professor Yacob Mulugetta, lead author and Professor of Energy and Development Policy at the University College London, "This will require national leadership as well as international funding, research support and tailor-made finance and investment. We hope this research will encourage African governments to take greater ownership of their energy decisions and take a longer-term view of their energy system to make sure their energy future is in their hands and serves the needs of their citizens."