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MPhil in Engineering for Sustainable Development

global challenges, engineering solutions

Scenarios for the Sustainable Future of South African Coal

Brennan Hodkinson

Scenarios for the Sustainable Future of South African Coal


South Africa obtains over 90% of its electricity from coal, the most carbon intensive mainstream fossil fuel.  Coal is used for much more than electricity however, and is used to produce liquid fuel and earn foreign exchange, among others.  As the world seeks to reduce carbon emissions and at the same time developing countries seek to grow rapidly, threats and opportunities exist for South African coal.  Technological developments will further influence this.

This paper seeks to investigate what impact these dynamics might have on coal in South Africa, as well as the wider implications given coal’s prominence in the South African economy.  It does this by constructing four scenarios to 2030 centred on uncertainties in future emissions constraints and technological innovations.  Through interviews with experts, the following scenarios were constructed:

Challenges Overcome:

Forced emission reductions place South Africa in a difficult position and the imposition of a carbon tax hurts the economy.  However, South Africa is able to exploit certain new technologies and begin a transforming to a low carbon economy.

Constrained Coal:

Emission constraints hurt the South African economy and new technologies fail to assist the country.  This scenario details the effects of South Africa too eagerly accepting emission reductions.

Responsible Action:

Even though there are no emission constraints, South Africa voluntarily attempts to transform its economy and move away from coal.  Shale gas reserves, clean coal technologies and a focus on coal exports over domestic consumption allow the country to do this.

Strategic Consumption:

South Africa can do as it pleases with its coal, but domestic pressure means it avoids expensive new technologies and focuses on maintaining cheap coal based power.  South Africa struggles to make full use of a coal boom, but soon finds that the global economic geography has changed around it, with severe consequences for the nation’s development.


Through constructing these scenarios, key issues are identified that could affect South African coal and its sustainable use.  It appears that there will be strong coal demand in the medium term but at the same time benefits to be had from beginning the transition to a low carbon economy.  Using coal to position South Africa to take advantage of both of these, as well as any technological developments, could potentially lead to a path of better economic, social and environmental sustainability.


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.