Coronavirus: The global economic and environmental impacts of COVID-19 revealed

The coronavirus pandemic has already cost 147 million people their jobs and took a Germany-sized chunk out of the global economy, a new study has found.

And things will only get worse if global measures aren't taken to change the way we live and work, the international group of researchers warn. 

"The current crisis is likely to deepen systemic socioeconomic vulnerabilities, widen income and wealth gaps, overburden, if not decimate, healthcare systems in lower-income countries, and proliferate the spread of emerging zoonotic diseases," the paper, published in journal PLOS One, reads. 

"When such systemic vulnerabilities are coupled with significant climatic variations, their combined effects may lead to tipping points in socio-economic systems, eg via food systems failure and large-scale urban abandonment."

Just as well then there have also been decent drops in emissions of greenhouses gases and pollutants like sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxide, thanks to lowered burning of fossil fuels.

The economic hit

The University of Sydney-led research looked at data from around the world up until May 22. They found a US$3.8 trillion reduction in consumption - 4.2 percent of global output and about the same as the GDP of economic powerhouse Germany.

As a result, 147 million full-time equivalent jobs were lost - also about 4.2 percent of the world total. Salaries and wages were cut 6 percent, with many who kept their jobs taking pay cuts. 

The hardest-hit countries were China - where the virus originated, and a big part of the global supply chain - and the US, which has failed to take measures to stop the virus' spread, and has the world's highest death count. 

"The pandemic has exposed vulnerable businesses whose supply chains are heavily concentrated in countries that are most directly impacted by the crisis," the study reads. 

"Countries that have significant trade relationships with the most coronavirus-affected countries also experience emission reductions." 

The economic impacts are "poised to grow as the pandemic persists" the researchers warn, with fewer jobs likely to be available in the near future. An economist told Newshub last week even in New Zealand, which is a rarity in having eliminated the virus, there won't be any job growth for at least a year.

An update on the country's official unemployment rate of 4.2 percent isn't due until August, but data from the Ministry of Social Development suggest it's up around 6.3 percent - 190,000 receiving the Jobseeker benefit - plus about 10,500 receiving the temporary COVID-19 Income Relief Payment.

The US, which has had no nationwide lockdown, saw unemployment jump from 3.5 percent in February to 14.7 percent in April.

The global transport and tourism industries were hit hardest.

Environmental impacts

The shutdowns triggered by the pandemic have seen the biggest-ever drop in greenhouse gas emissions and air pollution, the study found - bigger than that during the global financial crisis a decade ago.

"None of the attempts by any government or any international agreement in the 32-year history of intergovernmental climate policy has had such a dramatic mitigation effect," the study says.

Greenhouse gas emissions dropped 2.5 gigatonnes - 4.6 percent. The researchers found as the "economic contagion" spread, emissions dropped, likely saving "thousands of lives" in the process.

Seven weeks of lockdown here in New Zealand saw air pollution levels drop 75 percent, NIWA said in May.

The future 

But the gains aren't expected to last.

"While the COVID-19 crisis will leave a larger impression, it will still not be enough to avoid dangerous climate change, and may quickly be erased as we attempt to go back to business-as-usual and give way to 'retaliatory pollution'."

That's when Governments pump money into big projects designed to reboot the economy at any cost. 

"This could potentially be averted by implementing stimulus plans to boost clean energy technologies and facilitate 'just transitions', to encourage investments in teleworking and teleconferences for reducing carbon-intensive travel, and to devise policies for addressing rebound effects."

They said the drop in emissions, though the largest on record, wouldn't be enough to keep warming below 1.5C even if it happened every year from now until 2050. 

"Humanity faces a choice: attempting to return to a business-as-usual path with more unnecessary crises, or developing a different economy that is compatible with more sustainable and resilient human societies. Clearly, the decision we take now and after the crisis will define our post-pandemic world."