Just 25% of academic articles on energy transitions in Africa are by researchers on the continent.
African countries today face a dual challenge: development and climate change. They must build broad-based prosperity for their citizens while responding to the global imperative to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. While these two objectives are increasingly being discussed in tandem in some policy circles, however, academic research has typically considered them separately.
To better understand the dynamics shaping the discourse around energy in Africa, we recently conducted a systematic review of 156 peer-reviewed academic articles about energy transitions in Africa published between 2000 and 2021. Here are the six main findings we uncovered:
1) Energy transitions research in Africa is new but fast-growing
Energy transitions research in Africa is a largely new phenomenon but one that is growing quickly. Over 90% of the research in this space was published after the 2015 Paris Agreement, and 60% was published after 2018. This suggests that African countries entered the Paris Agreement with relatively limited knowledge to inform their positions and the first nationally determined contributions (NDCs) commitments. The steady and steep growth in papers published on Africa since the Paris Agreement should contribute to better and more informed climate and energy policy decisions and NDC revisions going forwards.
2) The research is focused on a limited sub-set of countries
Of the 156 academic articles analysed, over one-third focus on Nigeria and South Africa, the two largest economies on the continent. Nearly half of African countries are not covered at all by current research. Given the contextual differences between African countries, this country-specific knowledge gap could limit the effectiveness of policy recommendations when applied broadly to all African countries.
3) The complex energy transition tends to be overly simplified
Most energy transition research papers explore scenarios using time horizons linked to common global targets of 2030 and 2050. Less than 10% of papers reviewed had scenarios extending beyond 2050. For Africa, scenarios beyond 2050 are important. The African Union's Agenda 2063, which is viewed as the blueprint for the continent's development, is tightly linked to the evolution of energy systems across the continent.
Secondly, most of the papers we reviewed considered very few scenarios in their models. Half the papers had a maximum of three scenarios, and over 90% of papers had up to six. Considering the complexity and the multi-dimensionality of the issue at hand, one would expect to see a much larger number of scenarios, reflecting the uncertainties and choices involved in decision making at the nexus between economic development, energy transitions, and emissions reduction.
4) Economic development is not a central concern of research
Of the papers we analysed, only 10% considered development to be an outcome of interest. Most of the research into energy transitions prioritised climate goals and focused on determining the desired energy mix (90% of the papers) and the emission pathways needed to meet these goals (60% of the papers).
For the papers that considered development as an outcome, projections of electricity consumption and economic growth were modest. The largest per capita electricity consumption projection for sub-Saharan Africa in 2050 was 1,500 kWh. This is about half of the global average in 2017 (the latest year with comparable data) and is far lower than OECD and US consumption levels (7,992 kWh and 12,573 kWh, respectively) in that same year. The assumption that Africa's historically low economic development and electricity demand will continue risks locking the continent into low-ambition targets.
5) An exclusive set of technological pathways is considered
Most analysis of energy transition in Africa looks at solar, wind, and hydro. Yet despite the global recognition (IEA, IPCC, and IRENA) that carbon capture, hydrogen, and nuclear energy will play a key role in achieving global net zero emissions, these are only considered in a minority of papers. Giving limited attention to those critical technologies can inhibit understanding of the entire range of technologies African countries will have to employ to meet their energy transition targets.
6) The research is dominated by researchers outside the continent
Energy transitions research on Africa is dominated by researchers based outside the continent. 63% of the articles analysed are by foreign-based researchers, while just 25% are by writers in Africa. The remaining 12% involve a collaboration between the two groups.
We also found that the policy influence of non-Africa-based research is higher. 75% of the articles' citations in International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) reports were of papers by researchers outside Africa. The fact that Africa-based researchers are less cited and less known in international policy and scientific circles may explain why their intellectual contributions are under-represented in international policy reports.
The way forward
Our study reveals interesting dynamics that are shaping energy transitions research and policy in Africa. Addressing the gaps we have identified will be critical to reshaping the intellectual and policy landscape. African governments and the international development community alike have a role to play. Supporting grounded and localised research, and linking this to key policy decisions, will ensure that all the complex pieces of Africa's energy transition are well accounted for in global, regional and country-level climate strategies.
Don't miss a thing. Sign up to the free African Arguments weekly newsletter.
Leave this field empty if you're human:
Prudence Dato is a Senior Energy Economist at Clean Air Task Force. He leads policy-focused economic analysis on topics related to energy transitions, energy systems/markets, and development in Africa.