Coal Capitalist or Climate Warrior? The dizzying rise of Asia’s richest man

Special for Infobae of New York Times.

Gautam Adani has spent four decades and billions of dollars without being the hustle and bustle he became at age 15, when he dropped out of school and left home for the diamond district of Mumbai, India.

But he’s still in a hurry. Over the past five years, Adani, an Indian industrialist, has seen his net worth soar 1,440 percent to about $120 billion, making him the richest man in Asia and one of the four richest people in the world. rich on the planet

A significant part of that fortune comes from coal mining, shipping and burning, as India has doubled its use of this fossil fuel to cheaply and reliably power its rapidly growing economy and lift millions of people out of poverty. poverty.

However, Adani is also poised to be a decisive force in India’s green future, having promised to pour tens of billions of dollars into renewable energy development alongside his investments in coal. A lot depends on you achieving that balance.

Last year, Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government — with whom Adani has a longstanding relationship — pledged India to reach net zero carbon emissions by 2070, a major milestone for the country, though a goal decades in the making. behind other great nations.

The country has taken some steps towards that goal. India, with its abundant sunlight, now ranks fourth in solar generation, having multiplied its capacity by more than a hundred from 2011 to 2021. Modi has promised that India, the world’s third-biggest polluter, will get around 50 percent of its energy from renewable sources, such as solar, wind and green hydrogen, by 2030, up from 40 percent today.

However, the emphasis on economic growth that Modi and Adani share means that India will burn coal, in ever-increasing amounts, for decades to come. This has raised questions about the role the country, projected to be the world’s fastest-growing energy consumer in coming decades, will ultimately play in urgent global efforts to cut heat-trapping emissions and prevent a climate catastrophe.

Adani, 60, represents the rock-solid self-confidence of a country taking advantage of a global reshuffling of power amid Russia’s war in Ukraine, defying criticism of its growing expansion into coal while trying to change its image. from coal capitalist to climate warrior.

In an interview at his home in New Delhi, Adani said it would be unfair to ask India to disproportionately sacrifice growth for global climate goals. Places like the United States and Europe have emitted much more carbon over the centuries and reaped the benefits of development.

“India has to go from being a developing country to being a developed nation, and energy is like food,” Adani said. Her conglomerate, she added, provides “what my country and its citizens need: affordable, reliable energy.”

“We always align our business and our business philosophy based on what the country needs,” he said.

The parallel and perhaps opposite paths that Adani and her country travel can be seen in Mundra, the coastal city in the western state of Gujarat, where the Adani Group has built India’s largest private port.

Next to the port of Mundra there is a solar panel factory and a coal-fired power plant. The former barren land, the reclaimed and sun-scorched brackish marsh, studded with signs along its private roads and in its factories urging people to save electricity, is now the clearest symbol of Adani’s control over what that drives the Indian economy.

The company has ambitious plans to expand solar and wind power facilities near the port, but most of the electricity in Mundra’s Adani special economic zone comes from coal. A conveyor belt carries the imported coal directly from the dock to two plants that, together, constitute the largest thermal power facility in India. The energy generated there is transmitted to the state of Haryana, hundreds of kilometers to the north.

Grupo Adani has started to manufacture its own cells for solar panels, and plans to design the rest of the materials for the supply chain in the coming years. The company, which already distributes wind power through its extensive transmission lines, is also building its own turbines. It has plans to build two battery factories and invest in green hydrogen, a key component of Adani’s renewable energy strategy.

Adani grew up in a bustling medieval enclave of Ahmedabad, Gujarat’s capital. After leaving his house to enter the diamond trade of

Bombay, he returned to run his brother’s small plastics factory. He turned to imports when the Indian economy began to liberalize in the early 1990s.

In an interview with The New York Times, he said he learned the value of controlling supply chains when the family’s plastics factory faced severe polymer shortages. In the late 1990s, he recounted that he applied that knowledge when India began to open up its economy and faced a serious energy deficit. In the early 2000s, between 300 and 400 million Indians did not have access to electricity.

Now, Adani heads a $200 billion conglomerate of businesses as diverse as apples, cement and military drones, and is poised to acquire India’s last independent news channel. At the center is his energy empire, with a private rail line used to transport coal and other goods, as well as a dozen ports on India’s east and west coasts.

Journalists and other Gujarat watchers who have followed Adani’s meteoric rise say he has benefited from his long association with Modi, India’s most powerful leader in decades.

Adani said he met Modi almost 30 years ago, when the future prime minister, also a Gujarati, was a fierce apparatchik in a right-wing Hindu fraternal organization known as the RSS. As a first-generation businessman, Adani said, he made it a point to meet all the political players in Gujarat.

By 2001, Modi had been promoted to chief minister, the highest post in state. The following year, he was accused of not having done enough to stop communal riots that dragged on for months and claimed the lives of more than a thousand people, mostly Muslims. He was temporarily banned from entering the United States.

Adani, as a participant in overseas tours promoting Gujarat as an investment destination, helped restore Modi’s image by appearing at his side. In 2014, when Modi became prime minister, he flew to New Delhi aboard an Adani plane.

More recently, Adani won coal mining contracts despite fierce public opposition in an elephant corridor in Chhattisgarh state. And the prime minister’s political alliances in South Asia appear to have given Adani entry to develop a special economic zone in Bangladesh and a wind power project in Sri Lanka.

This has created a widespread perception in India that Adani’s relationship with Modi allows her to make whatever deals she wants, creating an uneven playing field. Adani said that he and Modi viewed each other with mutual respect, but that it was not friendship or special treatment.

“It is a wonderful job that this government has done,” he said.

Adani’s biggest blow, however, was in Australia. The Carmichael project is one of the largest open-pit coal mining operations in the world; To achieve this, Adani had to endure a sustained climate campaign led by activist Greta Thunberg and negotiate with half a dozen Australian governments as prime ministers came and went. After the funders pulled out, Adani had to put up $7 billion out of his pocket.

This year, the start of operations at the mine was lucky: India and Australia signed a free trade agreement in April. Once the agreement is ratified, Grupo Adani will be able to import large amounts of coal duty-free.

Adani, the world’s largest coal trader, is poised to become the world’s largest coal importer. So while Adani’s conglomerate devotes 80 percent of its total capital spending to renewables, its critics say the other 20 percent remains a problem.

“Stating that you care about the climate crisis, that you are part of the clean energy transition, while building huge new coal mines and power plants, plus several others in development that you refuse to shelve, is greenwashing without doubt,” charged Pablo Brait, an activist with Market Forces, an environmental advocacy group in Australia.

In the last decade, competition has driven down the costs of solar power so much that it is now as cheap as coal in India, and sometimes cheaper. However, some of the early enthusiasm for the Indian solar industry appears to have faded.

The government is expected to miss its target of 100 gigawatts of grid-connected solar power by the end of this year. The industry is hampered by a shortage of know-how and skilled labor, as well as a reliance on expensive equipment from China.

Adani Group and other companies intend to change this situation by manufacturing photovoltaic panels and other equipment in India. But at the same time, the Ukraine war has only reinforced the argument that India’s most powerful politician and its richest man have made for coal. India has its own supply, and much of the shortfall can be covered by Adani’s mines abroad.

“A war,” Adani said of climate advocates in the West, “and look how exposed they are.”

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