Sub-Saharan Africa is home to several of the world’s least developed economies. Additionally, forty percent of the nearly one billion people in this region lack access to basic electricity. There are several initiatives and programs aimed at increasing electricity access, clean cooking fuel, and renewable energy around the world. Economic development efforts have traditionally relied on increasing an economy’s use of fossil fuels. However, global climate change agreements and mitigation efforts are in direct contrast with this approach. As such, future development efforts must fit into the larger energy–population–climate nexus of global sustainability. Here we utilise a quantitative approach to examine three scenarios for development in sub-Saharan Africa and compare the results to nine historical examples of economic development. While no perfect development analogue was found, there are several lessons that can be learned from the last half century of efforts. We find that UN projected population growth in the region is expected to outpace non-renewable energy availability. The population of sub-Saharan Africa, and subsequent projected growth (4 billion by 2100), will represent a significant energy and climate strain on the 21st century world. In a larger sense, the social and economic development of sub-Saharan Africa is likely to be tied to an increase in per capita energy consumption. This increase is not going to come from traditional fossil fuels and will therefore require significant investment in a renewable energy infrastructure.
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