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Climate change and its impact on the palm oil industry

An oil palm with a bunch of fruits

Three countries namely Indonesia, Malaysia and Thailand produce the majority of the world’s palm oil production. In addition, palm oil is one of the major edible oils traded in the global oils and fats market. Palm oil and its products have extensively been used in the food as well as the manufacturing industries. In terms of supply, the oil palm is known to be the most efficient producer of oil compared with other oil crops. A report by staff of Malaysian Palm Oil Board [1] notes that palm oil production is strongly influenced by weather patterns.

According to a report on potential impact of climate change on oil palm cultivation [2], funded by University of York, United Kingdom, global weather patterns and sea levels are changing because of increasing temperatures caused by human activities releasing greenhouse gases into the atmosphere.  

Carbon dioxide has been the main cause of global warming to date, mainly released into the atmosphere from the use of fossil fuels and land use change such as deforestation, although other greenhouse gases such as methane are also significant contributors [3]. Greenhouse gas emissions and temperatures will continue to increase throughout the 21st century. This will cause higher frequency and intensity of extreme weather events such as heat waves, drought and sudden heavy rainfalls. Sea levels are also continually rising with temperature increase.

How will climate change affect where oil palm is grown?

Oil palm requires high temperature, rainfall and sunlight levels as shown in the table below.

Key components of climate which determine the suitability of location for growing oil palm

Component of climate Optimal range for oil palm Range of extreme values which oil palm tolerates
Temperature Mean annual temperature of 24-330C 15-380C. Cold-tolerant varieties may tolerate 120C  
Rainfall (mean annual rainfall) 2,000-2500 mm 1,250-6,000 mm  
Seasonality of rainfall Minimal: no months with less than 100 mm rainfall   Up to 6 months with less than 100 mm rainfall; tolerates temporary flooding  
Sunlight (solar radiation) 15-17 MJm-2per day 7-21 MJm-2per day  

Source: [2]

Oil palm yield is limited by the length of annual dry season, so areas with constantly high rainfall throughput the year have particularly high yields, such as in parts of Southeast Asia. Although much of the tropics is climatically suitable for oil palm, there is relatively low availability of land for planting globally, given other land uses and restrictions such as no planting on high carbon stock areas [4].

Where will oil palm grow in the future?

Climate change will directly affect where oil palm is grown, because the locations of areas suitable for growing oil palm will shift over the 21st century [5]. Temperatures will become too high, and drought risk will increase, so by 2100, there will likely be around three-quarters less land which is highly suitable for growing oil palm [6]. A particularly severe loss of suitable land is predicted for Thailand, Columbia, and Nigeria, which are all significant oil palm growing nations, and parts of Indonesia and Malaysia will also become less suitable.

Currently, areas at high elevation and latitude (far from the Equator) too cold for growing oil palm, but as temperatures become warmer, those may become newly suitable [5]. However, this will not be sufficient to compensate for the total loss of suitable areas for growing oil palm. Warner temperatures, and in some instances wetter climates, will improve the suitability of areas such as northern Argentina, parts of southern Brazil, South Africa, Madagascar, and highland areas of Malaysia and Indonesia throughout the 21st century [6].

How will climate change affect oil palm yield?

Climate change will have multiple effects on oil palm yield, depending on the specific climatic conditions at a location, and changes to pests and diseases of oil as shown below.

How factors which determine oil palm yield will change over the 21st century, how this will effect oil palm yield

Factors which affect oil palm yield Expected changes over the 21st century Impacts on palm oil yield
Rainfall: total per year Depends on location. May increase or decrease   Gain in yield likely if total rainfall increases provided this does not cause prolonged flooding. Loss of yield likely if total rainfall decreases.    
Rainfall: seasonality Rainfall will become less regular: dry periods will become more intense and flooding will occur more regularly.   Severe loss of yield.
Temperature Increase Loss of yield likely (mainly because soils become drier.  
Carbon dioxide Increase Gain in yield  
Sea levels Increase Severe loss of yield in costal plantations  
Pests and diseases   Various changes Uncertain
Pollination Various changes Uncertain

     Source: [2]

However, we do not know how the combination of these effects will affect oil palm yield overall, and whether  the positive effects on oil palm yield will compensate for the negative effects.

Impacts on changes in rainfall

The most important factor determining oil palm yield is the availability of water in the soil, which largely depends on rainfall, but is also affected by the temperature and other factors such as soil type. When there is less rainfall, there is also greater risk of fire, as seen during the recent El Nino events in Indonesia, which is a hazard for workers, in terms of air quality, and causes loss of yield [7].

Although there is low confidence in predictions of future rainfall in specific locations, there is more confidence in changes at a large scale. The risks of drought and flooding will increase across the tropics throughput the 21st century given that the effects of ENSO (El Nino and La Nina events) will become more intense [8]. Please also see [1] for explanation of the ENSO.

Drought frequency and intensity will increase in parts of West Africa over the coming decades and will become more likely in parts of Southeast Asia, where annual dry periods are predicted to become more intense [9]. Low-lying areas are also at risk of yield loss due to flooding [10].

Impacts of increasing temperature

As temperatures become warmer, soil water evaporated more quickly, so the impacts of dry periods become intense. The impacts of higher temperatures alone are likely to be less severe, but projections for Southeast Asia in 2100 suggest that temperatures will become too high for oil palm [5]. A small rise in temperature may improve oil palm yield, as seen on the west coast of Sabah, Malaysia [10].

Impacts of increasing carbon dioxide levels

Yields could improve by up to 75 per cent in 2100 due to higher carbon dioxide levels although this depends on the increase in temperature [5]. It is unsure whether increasing carbon dioxide levels will offset losses in oil palm yield lead caused by climate change, because the combined effects of these are not understood [11].

Impacts of rising sea levels

In Malaysia, up to 100,000 hectares of coastal plantations could be flooded in the future [12]. Coastal plantations can be managed to reduce flood risk, but the costs of this will increase in tandem with the rise in sea levels.

Impacts of changes in pests and diseases

Differing environmental conditions may be less suitable for pests and diseases of oil palm, which would allow yield to improve. However, there is particular uncertainty regarding pests and diseases in possible new locations for oil palm. When conditions are sub-optimal for oil palm such as when temperatures are high or there is limited water availability, palms may be less able to resist pests and diseases, causing yield loss.

Impacts of changes in pollination

Oil palm in Southeast Asia is primarily pollinated by a single species of weevil, Elaeidobius kamerunicus. The pollination activity this species changes with climate, so it is possible that the rate of pollination of oil palm in Southeast Asia will decrease under climate change [13]. Additionally, climate change could put Elaeidobius kamerunicus and other pollinators at greater risks of disease (in a similar way, that oil palm may have greater risk of disease). Just a small number of individual      Elaeidobius kamerunicus were introduced   to Southeast Asia from West Africa, so all individuals in Southeast Asia are genetically similar [13].  There is a risk that a disease which infects Elaeidobius kamerunicus in Southeast Asia could quickly and severely reduce the population, causing a sudden drop in yield. Please also see our book, The palm oil multinationals from Malaysia, available on

Where should oil palm be planted?

The changes to locations where oil palm can be grown, and the potential yield losses in current plantations will enable oil palm to expand into new areas over the 21st century. This will increase the risk of deforestation of suitable areas for planting. In particular, areas at high elevation will become suitable for growing oil palm, but in many tropical regions, the majority of large areas of forests are  also at high elevation [14]. These large areas of forest at high elevation are particularly important  for tropical biodiversity under climate change, because they are cooler than lowlands, so species can shift to these locations to avoid high temperatures [15].

For new oil palm plantations to be viable in the long-term, they should be located where there is low risk of negative impacts from climate change, and ideally where conditions for may improve. There is currently limited knowledge of where such areas coincide with low forest cover, to enable planting without deforestation. The report  suggests that the most suitable areas are likely in South America and South Africa, such as southern Brazil, and South Africa, because in Southeast Asia, highland areas will become suitable, but these areas are generally forested [6]. An analysis [16] shown below demonstrates the averages of four data sets illustrating trends in the change of suitable climate more clearly.

  Areas (km2)
Scenario Unsuitable Marginal Suitable Highly suitable
Current 3.32 x 105 6.12 x 103 7.91 x 103 1.79 x 106
2030 2.27 x 105 1.01 x 104 3.41 x 104 1.87 x 106
2070 1.39 x 105 5.67 x 104 2.71 x 105 1.67 x 106
2100 1.29 x 105 4.76 x 105  5.33 x 105 1.00 x 106

 Source; [16]


Climate variability does significantly influence the palm oil production patterns in Malaysia and Indonesia, the two leading palm oil producing countries in the world. Climate change may expand the areas suitable for oil palm growing such as in South America and South Africa.


[1]  Nur Nadia Kamil and Syuhadatu Fatimah Omar. Climate variability and its impact on the palm oil industry.

[2] Susannah Fleiss, Lead Author (2017). Potential impacts of climate change on oil palm cultivation; A science-for- policy paper by the SENsoSor programme.

[3] IPCC ,2013. Summary for Policy Makers. In: Climate Change 2013: The Physical Science Basis. Contribution of Working Group I to the Fifth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

[4] Pirker, J., Mosnier, A., Kraxner, F., Havlik, P. and Obersteiner, M. (2016). What are the limits to oil palm expansion? Global Environmental Change, 40, 73-81.

[5] Corley, R.H.V. and Tinker, P.B.H. (2015). The oil palm.5th edition. Wiley-Blackwell.

[6] Paterson, R., Kumar, L., Shabini, F. and Lima, N. (2017). World climate suitability projection to 2050 and 2100 for growing oil palm. The Journal of Agriculture Science, 155(5), 689-702.

[7] Noojipady, P., Morton, D.C., Schroeder, W., Carlson, K.M, Hunag, C., Gibbs, H.K, Burns, D., Walker, N.F., and Prince, S.D. (2017). Managing fire risk during drought: the influence of certification and El nino on fire-driven forest conversion for oil palm in Southeast Asia. Earth System Dynamics, 8 (3), 749.

[8] Christensen, J. H., K. Krishna Kumar, E. Aldrian, S.-I. An, I.F.A. Cavalcanti, M. de Castro, W. Dong, P. Goswami, A. Hall, J.K. Kayanga, A. Kitoh, J. Kossin, N.-C. Lau, J. Renwick, D. B. Spephenson, S.-P. Xie and T. Zhou (2013). Climate Phenomena and their Relevance for Future Regional Climate Change. In; Climate Change 2013: The Physicak Science Basis. Contribution of Working Group I to the Fifth Assessment Report of Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

[9] Chotamonsak, C., Salathe, E.P., Kreasuwan, J., Chantara, S. and Siriwitayakorn, K. (2011). Projected climate change over Southeast Asia simulated using a WRF regional climate model Atmospheric Science Letters, 12(2), 213-219.

[10] Wen, P.P. and Sidik, M. J. (2011). Impacts of rainfall, temperature and recent El Ninos on fisheries and agricultural products in the West Coast of Sbah (2000-2010). Borneo Science, 28.

[11] Long, S.P., Ainsworth, E.A., Leakey, A.D., Nosberger, J. and Ort, D.R. (2006). Food for thought: lower-than-expected crop yield stimulation with rising CO2 concentration. Science,312 (5782), 1918-1921.

[12] Siwar, C., Ahmed, F. and Begum, R.A. (2013). Climate change, agriculture and food security issues: Malaysian perspective. Journal: Food, Agriculture and Environment, 11(2), 1118-1123.

[13] Jackson, L., van Nordwijk, M., Bengtsson, J., Foster, W., Lipper, L., Pulleman, M., Said, M, Sanddon, J., and Vodohe, R. (2010) Biodiversity and agricultural sustainability; from assessment to adaptive management. Current Opinion in Environmental Sustainability, 2(10, 80-87.

[14] Proctor, S., McClean, C.J., and Hill, J.K. (2011). Protected areas of Borneo fail to protect forest landscape  with high habitat connectivity. Biodiversity ande conservation, 20(12), 2693.

[15] Scriven, S.A., Hodgson, J.A., McClean, C.J., Hill, J.K. (2015). Protected areas in Borneo may fail to conserve tropical forest biodiversity under climate change. Biological conservation, 184, 414-423.

[16] Paterson, R. R.M. and Lima, N. (2017). Climate change affecting oil palm agronomy, and oil palm  cultivation increasing climate change, require amelioration. Ecology and Evolution, 2017, 1-10.