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MPhil in Engineering for Sustainable Development

global challenges, engineering solutions

A Systems Thinking Approach to a Transition Towards Renewable Energy in South Africa

South Africa continues to rely on a coal-intensive energy system to drive employment and the growth of the economy. In light of the global climate crisis, this is no longer sustainable due to coal’s substantial carbon emissions. The rising concerns around energy security, coupled with the urgency of climate change mitigation, pose significant challenges to the country’s electricity sector. This research focuses on South Africa’s current electricity generation system. It investigates the opportunities, implications and barriers for renewable energy (RE) in response to climate change. Through a systems thinking (ST) approach, this dissertation develops critical intervention strategies to facilitate a just and fair transition away from coal. Finally, a high-level Theory of Change (ToC) framework consolidates research outcomes and maps out a transition pathway.  

The review of literature focuses on the context of South Africa’s electricity supply and its historical efforts to shift towards low-carbon technologies. It highlights that over the past decade, South Africa has continued to fall short of its mitigation commitments due to poor policy implementation as a result of political interference. Additionally, there have been rolling blackouts across the country due to financial and operational challenges experienced by the state-owned energy utility, Eskom. The literature highlights the existing drivers and barriers for RE and suggests cost-effective mitigation pathways. It also presents the economic and political cases for RE in South Africa, rooted in a ‘just transition’ from coal.  

A systems analysis based on semi-structured interviews with key stakeholders indicates the socio-economic complexities of a low-carbon transition, such as the resultant job losses, destruction of mining communities, and lack of consensus-building between stakeholders and government institutions. Visualising the system through a causal-loop diagram, leveraging points within the system are identified. Eleven intervention strategies are developed to drive the advancement of RE and a possible just transition. The critical actions proposed include (i) unbundling Eskom’s monopoly into separate generation, transmission and distribution entities; (ii) establishing a free market with a diverse set of independent sellers to increase RE capacity and dynamism in the sector; and (iii) developing a Just Transition Plan that addresses the human and environmental impacts. In summation, this dissertation identifies opportunities for future inter-sectoral coordination, guided by the ST approach of this research, to inform a successful and just transition towards a new green economy in South Africa that benefits all. 


Course Overview


The need to engage in better problem definition through careful dialogue with all stakeholder groups and a proper recognition of context.


An ability to work with specialists from other disciplines and professional groups acknowledging that technical innovation and business skills also must be understood, nurtured and combined as precursors to the successful implementation of sustainable solutions.


An understanding of mechanisms for managing change in organisations so future engineers are equipped to play a leadership role.


An awareness of a range of assessment frameworks, sustainability metrics and methodologies such as Life Cycle Analysis, Systems Dynamics, Multi-Criteria Decision making and Impact Assessment.