A complex systems view of climate and development issues in South African coal power expansion





complexity studies; climate mitigation; social justice; coal-fired power; electricity sector


The implementation of climate change policy in South Africa inevitably requires decision-makers to navigate issues of development. This paper explores some of the implications of this requirement by examining the case of a proposed new independent coal-fired power producing plant, Khanyisa, in the province of Mpumalanga from the perspective of complexity studies, an emerging transdisciplinary field. Complexity thinking re-casts the Khanyisa project in a whole-system view, encouraging an active consideration of scale, perspectives, different knowledges, and cumulative impacts. In so doing, tensions both between and within dimensions of climate mitigation and development are quickly revealed, a complexity which is theorised in complexity studies as the raw material for systemic transformation. This whole-system conceptualisation also undermines incremental and relative arguments that Khanyisa mitigates greenhouse gas emissions. Further, the complex systemic property of non-linearity suggests that the Khanyisa decision is more significant than its power generation capacity indicates. Attention to the conceptual simplification inherent in ‘development’ highlights what is lost through such simplification, as well as what is gained, and by whom. Finally, complexity thinking foregrounds the multiple scales at which the systemic climate mitigation and development implications of Khanyisa play out. Currently there is very little policy-making capacity nationally, regionally or in eMalahleni to look at alternatives, or ‘spaces of possibility’ through the complexity lens for both development and climate mitigation. This case argues that new policy processes are needed, which go far beyond policy and regulatory processes steeped in path dependencies and incrementalism.

• The case reveals the complex entanglement of climate and development issues as raw material for systemic transformation.
• A whole system and scalar conceptualisation, paying attention to non-linearities, and the exercise of power through simplifications suggest productive areas of focus for policymakers
• New policy processes are needed, which go far beyond policy and regulatory processes steeped in path dependencies and incrementalism.


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Author Biography

E. Tyler, Energy Research Centre and African Climate and Development Institute, University of Cape Town, South Africa

With an educational background in economics and finance, Emily has worked on the challenge of reducing greenhouse gas emissions since 2001, first in Europe and subsequently in South Africa where her development interest and perspective continues to shape her thinking and vocation.  Emily has predominantly worked as a consultant; to local and international civil society, the private sector, government and academia, both independently and in consulting firms and not-for-profit institutions.  Her focus has spanned corporate low carbon strategies, carbon foot-printing, low carbon project mechanisms under the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, national low carbon development strategies, carbon taxes and trading schemes, low carbon transition planning, energy policy, carbon budgeting and most recently, engaging complexity and complex systems thinking to approach low carbon policy in a development context through her  PhD research.


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How to Cite

Tyler, E., & Cohen, B. (2021). A complex systems view of climate and development issues in South African coal power expansion . Journal of Energy in Southern Africa, 32(1), 1–13. https://doi.org/10.17159/2413-3051/2021/v32i1a9052