Is charcoal a sustainable energy source in Africa? This is a crucial question, given charcoal’s key importance to urban energy. In today’s dominant policy narrative – the charcoal-crisis narrative – charcoal is deemed incompatible with sustainable and modern energy, blamed for looming ecological catastrophe, and demanding replacement. We argue that charcoal needs to be considered within its historical, social, and environmental contexts to better understand its present and the emergent pathways to sustainable energy futures. We draw upon research that is raising questions about both the charcoal-crisis and the sustainability-through-formalization narratives to argue for a new narrative of charcoal in context. This approaches charcoal as a politically, ecologically, and historically embedded resource, entailing significant socio-ecological complexity across diverse historical and geographical conjunctures, and calling for new agendas of interdisciplinary research with an orientation towards sustainability and justice.