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Life of Sugar: Developing Lifecycle Methods to Evaluate the Energy and Environmental Impacts of Sugarcane Biofuels


Lifecycle Assessment (LCA) is undergoing a period of rapid change as it strives to become more policy-relevant. Attributional LCA, the traditional LCA category, is beginning to be seen as particularly ill-equipped to assess the consequences of a policy. This has given birth to a new category of LCA known as Consequential LCA that is designed for use in LCA-based policies but is still largely unknown, even to LCA experts, and suffers from a lack of well developed methods. As a result, many LCA-based policies, like the California Low Carbon Fuel Standard (LCFS), use poor LCA methods that are both scientifically suspect and unable to model many biofuels, especially ones manufactured from byproduct feedstocks. Biofuels made from byproduct feedstocks, primarily molasses ethanol from Asia and the Caribbean, can contribute significantly to LCFS' carbon intensity targets in the near-term at low costs, a desperate need for the policy ever since US corn ethanol was rated as having a worse global warming impact than gasoline.

In this dissertation, I develop the first fully consequential lifecycle assessment of a byproduct-based biofuel using a partial equilibrium foundation. I find that the lifecycle carbon content of Indian molasses ethanol is just 5 gCO2/MJ using this method, making it one of the cleanest first generation biofuels in the LCFS. I also show that Indian molasses ethanol remains one of the cleanest first-generation biofuels even when using the flawed methodology ratified for the LCFS, with a lifecycle carbon content of 24 gCO2/MJ. My fully consequential LCA model also shows that India's Ethanol Blending program, which currently subsidizes blending of molasses ethanol and gasoline for domestic consumption, can meet its objective of supporting domestic agriculture more cost-effectively by helping producers export their molasses ethanol to fuel markets that value carbon. However, this objective will be achieved at a significant cost to the poor who will face a 39% increase in the price of sorghum because of the policy.

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