Coal Baron or Climate Warrior? The Dizzying Rise of Asia’s Richest Man.

Gautam Adani is four decades and billions of dollars removed from the hustling trader he became at age 15, when he quit school and left home for the diamond district of Mumbai.

But he is still in a hurry. In the past five years, Mr. Adani, an Indian industrialist, has seen his net worth skyrocket 1,440 percent, to around $120 billion, making him the richest man in Asia and one of the four wealthiest people on earth.

A sizable portion of that fortune has come from the mining, shipping and burning of coal, as India has doubled down on the fossil fuel to cheaply and reliably power its rapidly growing economy and lift millions out of poverty.

Mr. Adani, however, is also poised to be a decisive force in India’s green future, pledging tens of billions of dollars to develop renewable energy alongside his investments in coal. Much is riding on how well he strikes the balance.

Last year, the government of Prime Minister Narendra Modi — with whom Mr. Adani has longstanding ties — pledged that India would reach net-zero carbon emissions by 2070, a significant milestone for the country, though a target decades behind those of other large nations.

The country has made some strides toward that goal. India, with its abundant sunlight, now ranks fourth in solar generation, having increased its capacity more than 100-fold from 2011 to 2021. Mr. Modi has pledged that India, the world’s third-largest carbon polluter, will get about 50 percent of its energy from renewable sources, including solar, wind and green hydrogen, by 2030, up from about 40 percent today.

Yet the emphasis on economic growth shared by Mr. Modi and Mr. Adani means that India will burn coal, in ever-greater quantities, for decades to come. That has raised questions about the role that the country, which is projected to be the world’s fastest-growing consumer of energy in the coming decades, will ultimately play in urgent global efforts to reduce heat-trapping emissions and avert a climate catastrophe.

Mr. Adani, 60, represents the muscular self-confidence of a country taking advantage of a global reshuffle in power amid Russia’s war in Ukraine, defying criticism of his increasing expansion in coal while seeking to change his image from coal baron to climate warrior.

In an interview at a home he keeps in New Delhi, Mr. 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 been far larger carbon emitters over the centuries and reaped the development benefits.

“India has to move from developing to developed, and energy is like a food,” Mr. Adani said. His conglomerate, he added, is providing “what my country and its citizens require: affordable, reliable power.”

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

The parallel and perhaps opposing tracks that Mr. Adani and his country are traveling down 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 Mundra Port stands both a solar panel factory and a coal-fired power plant. Formerly barren land, the sun-scorched reclaimed salt marsh, studded with signs along its private roads and in its factories urging people to save electricity, is now the clearest symbol of Mr. Adani’s hold on what powers the Indian economy.

The company has ambitious plans to expand solar and wind power installations near the port, but most of the electricity in Adani’s special economic zone in Mundra comes from coal. A conveyor brings imported coal straight from the dock to two plants that together comprise India’s largest thermal power installation. The energy generated there is transmitted as far as Haryana State, hundreds of miles to the north.

The Adani Group has begun making its own cells for solar panels, with plans to engineer the rest of the materials in the supply chain in the next few years. Already a distributor of wind energy over its expansive transmission lines, the company is also building its own turbines. It has plans to construct two battery factories, and sink cash into green hydrogen, a key component of Mr. Adani’s renewables strategy.

Mr. Adani grew up in a bustling medieval enclave in Ahmedabad, Gujarat’s capital. After leaving home to enter the Mumbai diamond trade, he returned to run his brother’s small plastics factory. He turned to imports as India’s economy began to liberalize in the early 1990s.

He said in the interview with The New York Times that he had learned the value of controlling supply chains when the family’s plastics factory faced a severe shortage of polymers. In the late 1990s, he said, he applied that knowledge as India was opening its economy and facing a severe energy deficit. As recently as the early 2000s, 300 million to 400 million Indians had no access to electricity.

Mr. Adani now presides over a sprawling $200 billion conglomerate of businesses as diverse as apples, cement and military drones, and he is moving to acquire India’s last independent news channel. At the heart is his energy empire, with a private railway line used to transport coal and other cargo, as well as a dozen of ports on India’s eastern and western coasts.

His rapid rise has not come without controversy. His company was investigated on suspicion of taking inflated tax breaks for imported equipment and coal, but ultimately cleared. And a whopping 1,200 percent rise in the stock in the last two years of Adani Enterprises, a subsidiary that focuses on new business ventures, has drawn scrutiny. Much of the trading activity has been traced to holding companies based in tax havens, drawing speculation that it has been manipulated.

The stock market gains were particularly astounding against the backdrop of the coronavirus pandemic, which battered India’s economy and left hundreds of millions of people unemployed and dependent upon government food rations.

In his interview with The Times, Mr. Adani said regulators were welcome to investigate the stock activity.

He and his family tightly control his conglomerate. He is the chairman of all six of its publicly listed entities, and his brother, son and nephews hold executive posts. As the enterprise has taken on huge levels of debt to finance its rapid expansion, a Fitch Ratings subsidiary has warned of high “key man” risk, with the conglomerate so firmly connected to Mr. Adani.

Most of his extended family lives within a mile of his compound in Ahmedabad, according to Girish Dani, a neighbor and longtime family friend. Mr. Adani and his family, including his wife, Priti, a dentist who runs the family foundation, are adherents of Jainism, a religion that emphasizes asceticism.

“He is very soft-spoken and mild. But in a decision, he’s very firm,” Mr. Dani said.

R.N. Bhaskar, a journalist who has written two biographies of Mr. Adani, the first commissioned by the family and the second set for publication next month, said the industrialist still operated the way he did as a teenager in Mumbai.

A diamond trader has to be “lightning quick in your responses, and a hustler, with the ability to think fast, calculate numbers and risk, size up customers and collateral and operate on wafer-thin margins,” he said.

“These are the traits,” Mr. Bhaskar added, “in Gautam Adani.”

Unlike Mukesh Ambani, a fellow billionaire from Gujarat whose wealth he recently surpassed and who is known for his opulent Mumbai high-rise and lavish, star-studded parties, Mr. Adani keeps a relatively low profile. But his political connections are legion.

Journalists and other observers in Gujarat who have tracked Mr. Adani’s meteoric ascent say he has benefited from his longtime association with Mr. Modi, India’s most powerful leader in decades.

Mr. Adani said he had first met Mr. Modi some 30 years ago when the future prime minister, a fellow Gujarati, was a fiery apparatchik in a right-wing Hindu fraternal organization known as the R.S.S. As a first-generation businessman, Mr. Adani said, he made a point of knowing all of Gujarat’s political players.

By 2001, Mr. Modi had ascended to become chief minister, the state’s top position. The next year, he was accused of doing too little to stop communal riots that went on for months and claimed the lives of more than 1,000 people mainly Muslims. He was temporarily banned from entering the United States.

Mr. Adani, as a participant in overseas roadshows that promoted Gujarat as an investment destination, helped restore Mr. Modi’s image by appearing with him. In 2014, when Mr. Modi became prime minister, he flew to New Delhi aboard an Adani plane.

More recently, Mr. Adani was granted coal mining concessions over fierce public opposition in an elephant corridor in the state of Chhattisgarh. And the prime minister’s political alliances in South Asia appear to have given Mr. Adani entree to develop a special economic zone in Bangladesh and a wind energy project in Sri Lanka.

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

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

Mr. Adani’s largest coup, however, was in Australia. His Carmichael project there is among the largest open-pit coal mining operations in the world; getting it done required Mr. Adani to withstand a sustained climate campaign led by the activist Greta Thunberg and to negotiate with half a dozen Australian governments, as prime ministers came and went. After financiers pulled out, Mr. Adani had to put up $7 billion himself.

The start of operations at the mine this year was serendipitous: India and Australia signed a free-trade agreement in April. Once the deal is ratified, the Adani Group will be able to import vast amounts of coal tax free.

Adani, already the world’s largest coal trader, is poised to become the world’s biggest coal importer. So even as Mr. Adani’s conglomerate devotes 80 percent of its overall capital expenditures to renewables, his critics note that the other 20 percent remains a problem.

“To claim that you care about the climate crisis, that you are part of the transition to clean energy, while building massive new coal mines and coal-burning power stations, and several more in the pipeline that you refuse to shelve, that is absolutely green-washing,” said Pablo Brait, a campaigner with Market Forces, an environmental advocacy group in Australia.

In the past decade, competition has driven down the costs of solar so much that it is now as cheap as coal in India and sometimes cheaper. Yet some of the initial enthusiasm for India’s solar industry now seems to have faded.

The government is expected to fall far short of its goal of 100 gigawatts of grid-connected solar power by the end of this year. The industry is hamstrung by a shortage of technical expertise and qualified labor, as well as dependence on expensive equipment from China.

The Adani Group and other companies are aiming to change that by manufacturing photovoltaic panels and other equipment in India. But at the same time, the war in Ukraine has only bolstered 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 met with Adani mines overseas.

“One war,” Mr. Adani said of climate campaigners in the West, “and look at how exposed they are.”

Suhasini Raj contributed reporting.