October 22, 2017

Moral Dilemma or No Brainer?

By David Clark

First published by Fifth Estate- click here to view.

If your company was offered a mega profitable commission on Adani’s Carmichael coal mine* in Queensland would you turn it down due to the environmental damage it will cause, or would you take the cash?

We have recently been discussing ethics and where to set the bar in Cundall as part of a materiality review of our environmental and social impacts. We have still more work to do on this but it got me thinking further about the issue.

OK, for me the Adani coal mine is such a monumentally bad idea, it’s pretty easy to say no. How could we justify working on a project that is so incompatible with our vision and values? And since Cundall has no history in mining, we are unlikely to be offered a contract anyway so this example is probably moot.

But what if I was working for a big corporate that took the Adani money on offer despite professing to protect our environment and improve people’s lives? How could I reconcile a commitment to delivering clean water and energy, restoring damaged environments and designing parks where children play with the significant local and global damage that will be caused by the Adani coal mine over the next 60 years?

As I don’t work for such a company I can’t answer this. But I certainly don’t buy in to the argument that “if we don’t do this project then someone else will anyway” to justify working on anything. So I started to think about the questions I would ask if offered work on any environmentally or socially questionable project.

  1. Will the project cause significant environmental damage?
  2. Will the project have an unacceptable impact on communities and/or health?
  3. Does the Client have a known history of fraud, bribery or human rights abuses?
  4. If I worked on the project could I help reduce these impacts to an acceptable level? And how do I define acceptable? Acceptable to me or to others?
  5. Am I being a hypocrite advocating sustainable design then working on this project?
  6. What would the rest of the team think? Would it damage our culture? Would people leave the business?

But what if the business was struggling and this was the difference between keeping afloat or going under?

Or I needed to hit financial KPIs to get my bonus (or keep my job) so that I could keep up with large mortgage payments or school fees?

And if I could justify it from a business perspective, but recognised it fell within an ethically grey area, would I offer staff the choice of whether they worked on it?

It seems to me that there are no simple answers, particularly in defining what is acceptable or unacceptable to a business, as nearly every project has environmental and social impact to some degree (either directly or somewhere in the procurement supply chain). Where does one set the bar? And what is the perception outside the business if the bar is set too low?

Shareholder activism and social media campaigns are on the rise, influencing the investment decisions of banks and investors. Does that mean we will see similar pressure applied to consultants and contractors in the future? And will clients consider the impact on their brand due to employing companies in their supply chain who work on environmentally and socially damaging projects?

So after all this pondering I decided that I’d do what I usually do when faced with making a decision on what projects to work on – rely on gut feel, personal values and the views of my colleagues – and be thankful that I work for a company with a culture that doesn’t place financial KPIs and profit above all else.

I’d welcome the views of others on what is clearly a challenging and often personal issue.


* – Adani is proposing, with enthusiastic political and financial support from both the state and federal governments, to build the largest coal mine in Australia. Adani has said that over a 60-year lifetime the company expects to extract 2.3 billion tonnes of coal. This would then release around 6 billion tonnes of CO2 into the atmosphere when used in power stations. To have a 66% chance of keeping global average temperature rise to under 2°C we have a total carbon budget remaining this century of around 800 billion tonnes. So one coal mine accounts for almost 1% of the global carbon budget. And this ignores any other new coal mines that might open in the Gallilee Coal Basin once Adani sets a precedent which could increase coal and CO2 output by five times that of the Carmichael mine.

Then there are all the other environmental impacts:

  • Six open-cut pits as well as five underground mines, with a disturbance area more than 30km long.
  • 12 billion litres of water per year taken from a water body that feeds the Great Artesian Basin which many farmers and eco-systems rely on. The state government has granted Adani an “unlimited” water licence.
  • Expansion of the shipping terminal with potential impacts during construction and operation on the Great Barrier Reef.

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David Clark, Sustainable Cundall

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