How does Africa develop without increasing its carbon emissions?

African countries need to find a pathway to develop in harmony with nature while improving the living standards of their citizens without increasing carbon emissions.

Download the full statement here (PDF).


Africa faces an urgent double-edged deficit: rampant under-development, and severe climate vulnerability.

Kurt Lonsway, African Development Bank’s Manager for Climate Change and Energy

As a continent, Africa has experienced an improvement in human development over the past two decades but it also has the lowest average levels of human development compared to other regions in the world. The majority of African countries (36 out of 54 African countries) have a low development index.

A severe shortage of essential electricity infrastructure is undermining efforts to achieve more rapid social and economic development. Less than half of all Africans have access to energy. In sub-Saharan Africa, only 290 million out of 915 million people have access to electricity. The total number without access is rising as populations continue to grow (International Energy Agency, 2014). For those Africans that do have access to electricity, supply is often unreliable, necessitating widespread and costly private use of back-up generators running on diesel or gasoline.

(United Nations Development Programme, 2016)

Because 45% of the African population is below poverty line, over-consumption is not yet a problem in Africa. However, there is a need to meet the universally accepted basic needs for the increasing population of Africa. In addition, the African middle-class will grow in the long-term, most likely resulting in an increase in energy needs on the continent. Furthermore, research published in 2014 indicates that the climate change models used by the International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) underestimate Africa’s emissions, which could account for 20-55% of global anthropogenic emissions of gaseous and particulate pollutants by 2030 (Liousse, Assamoi, Criqui, Granier, & Rosset, 2014).

The Climate Change Vulnerability Index 2015 indicates that a number of African countries are at Extreme and High Risk in the event of climate change reaching life-threatening levels.

The low levels of development, an extensive predicted increase in Africa’s greenhouse gas emissions and high climate change vulnerability are compounded by the rapid rate of decline of Africa’s carbon sinks. African’s carbon sink declines are attributed to deforestation and the loss of grasslands, which are accelerated by human activity. According to the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), Africa loses more than 4 million hectares (9.9 million acres) of forest every year, at twice the world rate of deforestation. Grasslands degradation is another major concern. Land use intensification for agriculture and livestock farming as well as burning contribute substantially to desertification and land degradation.

How can Africa continue to develop while reducing its carbon emissions?

In order for African countries to break the cycle of poverty and improve energy access without increasing carbon emissions, they need to find a pathway to develop in harmony with nature while improving the living standards of their citizens. The continent can leapfrog old technology and ways of thinking while simultaneously prioritizing options that use less resources in order to reduce carbon emissions. The official term for this is ‘decarbonised development’. A decarbonised economy refers to an economy based on low carbon or carbon neutral power sources that have a minimal output of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions into the biosphere, specifically referring to reducing the net emissions of carbon dioxide (CO2) to zero. Thus, decarbonised development is about increasing human development levels within countries while having a carbon neural impact on the environment.

Possible pathways to reach carbon neutrality by the end of the 21st century for all countries are a combination of the following four actions:

  • Using only electricity from renewable sources such as wind, sun, water and waves (wind, solar, hydro and tidal).
  • Sector coupling, i.e. electrification of vehicles, buildings and industrial processes – using the electricity generated from renewable energy.
  • Reducing energy demand by creating more energy efficient (and less wasteful) building designs, improved public transport systems and industrial processes and very importantly, improved agricultural practices that have no net carbon emissions.
  • Shifting from deforestation and land degradation to net reforestation and land rehabilitation, to create net carbon sinks rather than sources (Fay, et al., 2015).

Furthermore, a report by the World Bank highlights three broad principles to guide African countries’ shift to a decarbonised development. These are:

  • Plan for the future and define a long-term target that is consistent with decarbonisation. By doing so, countries will avoid expensive investments that are not consistent with decarbonised development when building short-term, sector-specific plans. Moreover, research indicates that acting early is likely to reduce costs in the long-term.
  • Countries should develop policy packages that trigger changes in investment patterns, technologies and behaviours. While carbon pricing and taxes may help to shift towards decarbonisation, it is not the only way to solve the climate change problem. Policy makers should adopt measures such as targeted investment subsidies, performance standards and mandates, or communication campaigns that trigger the required changes in investment patterns, behaviours and technologies.
  • Protect those most vulnerable to climate change and develop political will to decarbonise development. A climate policy package must be attractive to a majority of voters and avoid impacts that appear unfair. Carbon pricing and getting rid of environmentally harmful subsidies may provide additional resources to improve equity, to protect those affected, and, when needed, to appease opponents.
The West is NOT the best: Leapfrogging and Decoupling

Africa should look to the West and to Asia to learn from their experiences and avoid the mistakes and environmental problems created by their development processes. By not blindly following Western countries’ development trajectory, African countries can ‘leapfrog’ into sustainable development; save on infrastructure development costs by creating a shortcut to clean, safe and efficient technologies; provide the social benefits to a far greater portion of their population; and avoid negative environmental side effects by decoupling their economic development from their resource use and environmental impact.


Leapfrogging is defined by the nonprofit online publisher Worldchanging as the notion that describes a situation where areas which have poorly-developed technology or economic bases can move themselves forward rapidly through the adoption of modern systems without going through intermediary steps. Alexander Gerschenkron noted that sometimes, not having invested in a system or technology can be beneficial when a paradigm shift occurs, as the society does not have to deal with sunk costs and legacy issues. The society can often adopt the new systems more rapidly and completely than can other, ostensibly more “advanced,” societies, gaining the social and economic benefits earlier (Assefa).

Examples of leapfrogging include the shift from no access to communications tools to the high level of mobile phone penetration in Africa; or villages going from having no access to energy to adopting modern technologies such as solar power. Renewable energies are a good example of leapfrogging opportunities. African countries that lag behind in terms of electricity infrastructure experience less path dependency to ‘conventional’ technologies. It is therefore easier for them to adopt directly new, clean energy sources, especially as these technologies have already achieved a stage where they are at least as cost-effective as other energy sources – if not already cheaper. Besides the cost incentive, the set-up and operational flexibility of renewable energy technologies such as wind or solar make them best suited to improve access to electricity in both urban and rural areas on the African continent.


The International Resource Panel notes in its report that human well-being and its improvement is based upon the availability of natural resources such as energy, materials, water and land. While economic development and population growth have led to a substantial increase in the use of natural resources, many of these are becoming less abundant and may even become critically scarce in the future. Put simply, it means we are unlikely to have sufficient natural resources to allow for all Africans to improve their lives if we keep using them at the same rate we have been using them. The dilemma of expanding economic activities while reducing the rate of resource use and reducing the environmental impact of any such use poses a serious challenge to society.

Decoupling is defined as delinking economic growth from resource use and environmental impacts. It means reducing the amount of resources such as water or fossil fuels used to produce economic growth while decreasing environmental deterioration (Fischer-Kowalski, et al., 2011). This is achieved by both making resources more productive and increasing eco-efficiency. Resource decoupling, i.e. making resources more productive, means using less material, energy, water and land for the same economic output. It alleviates the problem of scarcity and responds to the sustainability challenge of intergenerational equity by reducing the rate of physical resource depletion, while simultaneously helping to reduce costs by raising resource productivity. Impact decoupling, i.e. increasing eco-efficiency, means raising economic output while reducing negative environmental impacts that arise from the extraction and use of the required resources (such as groundwater pollution, wastes and GHG emissions). In other words, it is about using resources better, more wisely or more cleanly (Indo-German Expert Group, 2014).

Decoupling is a strategic approach for moving forward a global Green Economy – one that “results in improved human well-being and social equity, while significantly reducing environmental risks and ecological scarcities” (UNEP).


The majority of African countries have a low development index and the severe electricity poverty is undermining efforts to achieve more rapid social and economic development. Added to this, a number of African countries are at Extreme and High Risk in the event of climate change reaching life-threatening levels.

Africa needs decarbonise its development in order to achieve social and economic development while reducing its impact on nature. The decarbonised development pathways are a combination of only using electricity from renewable sources; electrification of transport, buildings and industrial processes – using the electricity generated from renewable energy; reducing energy demand by creating more energy-efficient building designs, improved public transport systems, industrial processes and agricultural practices that have no net carbon emissions; net reforestation and land rehabilitation, to create net carbon sinks.

In order to follow these pathways, African countries should both leapfrog their development and decouple their economic development from resource use and environmental impact. By doing this, African countries can avoid environmental impacts caused by the West and Asian economic growth models while achieving social and economic gains while saving costs.