Rebecca Rutstein and the Ocean Memory Project, "Blue Dreams" (2023), still from the 2 minute and 40 second digital video.

Fostering Clean Energy in Africa


Generating Meaningful Energy Systems Models for Africa

In “Generating Meaningful Energy Systems Models for Africa” (Issues, Spring 2023), Michael O. Dioha and Rose M. Mutiso highlight an important but often neglected issue in current energy transition dialogues: the underrepresentation of African expertise and data in the analyses that inform energy policies on the continent. While the inherent inequality that marks the knowledge development process is concerning, it is the implication that current energy transition strategies are likely out of touch with the on-the-ground realities of the African continent that pose the greatest risk to achieving global climate goals.

As the authors note, the energy systems models that currently inform policy actions tend to focus primarily on decarbonization and emissions reductions. In Africa, however, the challenge at hand is far more complex than this. The continent has the lowest rates of access to modern energy in the world, lags behind other regions on several development indicators—health, education, infrastructure, water, and sanitation, among others—and is one of the most vulnerable regions to the impacts of climate change, despite its historically low emissions. Any energy transition strategy in Africa that fails to acknowledge and address this complex set of challenges in an integrated manner is bound to miss the mark.

Africa contributes the least to climate change because it is poor. Unlike in developed economies, agriculture and land use change, rather than the energy sector, account for the lion’s share of Africa’s emissions. This is because the continent is still predominantly agrarian and relies heavily on the inefficient combustion of biomass for cooking. Modernizing Africa’s energy systems and improving agricultural practices can result in dual climate and development benefits. But this will require significant investments, making economic development a critical lever for achieving climate objectives.

Any energy transition strategy in Africa that fails to acknowledge and address this complex set of challenges in an integrated manner is bound to miss the mark.

Most African countries are still actively building out their energy infrastructure. This means countries on the continent have an opportunity to develop energy systems that can provide Africans with affordable, abundant, and reliable energy while tapping into the vast range of innovative technologies available today, to minimize the climate impacts of energy use. Developing modern and sophisticated electric grids, investing in innovative zero-carbon solutions, and developing the human resources we need to manage cutting-edge climate friendly energy systems are not cheap endeavors.

Today, the impact of climate change is being felt across Africa; extreme weather events, droughts, famines, and increasing disease burdens are straining the capacity of African governments to respond to these vulnerabilities. Persistent poverty on the continent will only force countries to make existential choices between meeting basic development needs and investing in a climate-friendly future. Still, given the scale of investments needed to build a global clean energy economy, Africa should not continue to depend on handouts from richer countries for the continent’s energy transformation. Building African wealth is our best bet.

By embracing the uniqueness of the African context, we can begin to shift the center of gravity of energy transition dialogues from the narrow focus on replacing dirty fuels with cleaner ones to a comprehensive approach that enables access to abundant, affordable, reliable, and modern energy, promotes economic development across sectors, and builds the resilience of Africans to respond to the impacts of climate change.

Director, Energy and Climate Innovation–Africa

Clean Air Task Force

Cite this Article

“Fostering Clean Energy in Africa.” Issues in Science and Technology 39, no. 4 (Summer 2023).

Vol. XXXIX, No. 4, Summer 2023