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 into 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 six billion tonnes of CO2 into the atmosphere when used in power stations. To have a 66 per cent 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 one per cent of the global carbon budget. And this ignores any other new coal mines that might open in the Galilee 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.

For more information see these articles:

David Clark is director and partner at Cundall.

Join the Conversation


Your email address will not be published.

  1. David, thanks for stating what I am sure many people are feeling and thinking including those working for some major contractors and consultants. Who we work for is a natural extension of the divestment movement and an important lever we all can wield whether we do it consciously or not.

  2. There’s a reason why regulation only goes so far, and that’s because these issues are far from clear-cut. History is full of instances of people deliberately doing ‘bad’ things for ‘good’ ends and people doing what they thought were ‘good’ things that in fact turned out to be bad. You never have all the facts and cannot know the long-term consequences of your actions. For me it boils down to what I personally feel comfortable doing. If it has the potential to keep me up at night, I ain’t going to do it. But where there’s a grey area, I don’t get too judgy either. I know what I can afford, and not everyone’s so lucky.

  3. The other way of looking at this is by working on the project you have the best chance to influence it to be more sustainable than it perhaps otherwise would have been with another consultant who doesn’t value sustainability as high as Cundall does.

    At least with a seat at the table you can try and inform the client to be more sustainable and point out the virtues, political and public opinion capital that could be gained by them being more sustainable, who knows.. maybe they would embrace it. Someone needs to educate highly un-sustainable clients/projects to be better, and who would be better placed than Cundall? – Maybe it is our environment duty to work on this type of project and make it as best it can be.

  4. I turned down a lucrative consulting roll on the re-invigoration of the VIC brown coalfields.

    Internally working out whether this was the sort of work we’d do was a good process. Ultimately the decision was, in essence, taken by our company’s employees. They expressed a clear but not violent view that they wouldn’t feel “engaged” by such work and didn’t feel it aligned with our small company’s culture and ethics nor their own.

    At the end of the day if you take the work you’ll increase your chances of loosing people and THAT is expensive.

  5. We will look back in history on the Adani debacle as a fire sale of Australia’s dirty assets prior to the renewable age. Australia is the custodian of global natural capital and the Adani scheme is an abuse of our responsibility. From a corporate point of view, there is a likely risk that anyone associated with it will lose reputation and be held accountable in a future where generations have critically less than ours. Yes, I believe that it is morally wrong to contribute to the scheme, and more pertinently, that there is a business risk of being a perpetrator, and being held accountable into the future, whether it be 5, 10 or 50 years time. Personally I hope so.