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Coal and carbonization in sub-Saharan Africa


Economic development in sub-Saharan Africa has increased carbon emissions and will continue to do so. However, changes in emissions in the past few decades and their underlying drivers are not well understood. Here we use a Kaya decomposition to show that rising carbon intensity has played an increasingly important role in emission growth in sub-Saharan Africa since 2005. These changes have mainly been driven by the increasing use of oil, especially in the transportation sector. Combining investment data in the power sector with economic and population projections, we find that investments in new coal-fired capacity may become a major driver of future carbonization. Our results highlight the importance of making low-carbon technologies available and financially attractive to sub-Saharan African countries to avoid a lock-in of emission-intensive energy use patterns.

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Fig. 1: Kaya decomposition of emission drivers.
Fig. 2: Effect of carbon intensity on total emission growth decomposed into effects of different energy carriers.
Fig. 3: Historical (1995–2015) and projected (2015–2025) short-term effects of changes in the carbon intensity on absolute emission growth.
Fig. 4: Kaya decomposition of projected carbon intensity in 2015–2025 in the SSA region under various socio-economic and climate policy assumptions.

Data availability

The data used in this study are not publically available (except Shearer et al.22 and Wirth34). Data on emissions and energy are available from the IEA15, and data on power plants are available from Platts16, but fees and restrictions apply to the availability of both databases that we used under license for the current study. Data are available from the authors on reasonable request and with permission of the IEA and Platts, respectively. Data on SSP scenarios rely on peer reviewed publications and are available from the respective modelling teams23,24,25,26,27,28.

Code availability

All code and figures and their underlying data are available at


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The authors acknowledge funding from the German Federal Ministry of Education and Research (BMBF), funding code 011A1807A (DECADE). We also thank K. Calvin (PNNL), N. Bauer (PIK), D. van Vuuren and M. Hamsen (PBL), S. Fujimori (NIES) and O. Fricko (IIASA) for sharing IAM data with us. We thank L. Montrone and L. M. Puerto Chaves for excellent research assistance.

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Authors and Affiliations



All authors conceived and planned the project. J.C.S., J.H. and M.J. analysed the data. J.H., J.C.S. and M.J. designed the simulations. J.H. and J.C.S. developed the code and ran the simulations. J.C.S, M.J. and J.H. wrote the paper.

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Correspondence to Jan Christoph Steckel.

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The authors declare no competing interests.

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Peer review information Nature Climate Change thanks Fadiel Ahjum, Heli Arminen, Paul Lucas and the other, anonymous, reviewer(s) for their contribution to the peer review of this work.

Publisher’s note Springer Nature remains neutral with regard to jurisdictional claims in published maps and institutional affiliations.

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Supplementary Information

Supplementary Figs. 1–8, Tables 1–5 and detailed descriptions of data and methods.

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Steckel, J.C., Hilaire, J., Jakob, M. et al. Coal and carbonization in sub-Saharan Africa. Nat. Clim. Chang. 10, 83–88 (2020).

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