Date of Award


Level of Access

Campus-Only Dissertation

Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)


Ecology and Environmental Sciences


Jessica Leahy

Second Committee Member

Jonathan Rubin

Third Committee Member

Peter van Walsum


As a perfect substitute for diesel fuel and supported by high agricultural yield, biodiesel derived from palm oil (Elaeis guineensis) has huge potential as a future biofuel. However, many questions remain unanswered about its life cycle impacts on sustainability. This project aims to holistically assess the sustainability issues of palm oil biodiesel in order to aid in decision making for sustainable renewable energy policy. The assessment was performed in a system perspective using a multidisciplinary approach encapsulated in the life cycle sustainability assessment concept that captured the triple-bottom line of sustainable development (people, profit, and planet) and covered the spectrum of values and criteria in order to measure organizational and societal success in economics, environmental, and societal dimensions.

The economic dimension was assessed using the ecological economic concepts of energy quality, which is the energy return on investment and power density. The environmental dimension was assessed through a meta-analysis review of studies that apply life cycle assessment and mass-/energy flow analysis on palm oil biodiesel supply chain. The societal dimensions was assessed through a social life cycle assessment methodology using a case study in Jambi Province of Indonesia and a set of social criteria that were developed and weighted by a panel of experts. Further analysis was conducted to see the impacts of the increasing demand of palm oil on the prices in vegetable oil market using an econometric model. Finally, an agent-base model entitled “Expansion of Palm Oil Sustainability Evaluation in Agent Base Model” (EXPOSE-ABM Version 1.0) was created to provide a decision support system that mimics the complex dynamic system of palm oil industry that could aid in further policy making.

This research found opportunities and challenges for a sustainable production and consumption of palm oil biodiesel. Palm oil biodiesel offers advantage compared to other biofuel feedstocks in terms of the energy return on investment. However, it has low power density which may lead to massive land use change. It is also associated with the potentials of global warming, acidification, eutrophication, and threat to biodiversity. From social perspectives, it is associated with exploitative labor relations and marginalization of local communities.