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Solar or Coal? The Energy India Picks May Decide Earth’s Fate

A few minutes after I meet E. V. R. Raju, a vision pops into my head. I can see him on one of those lists of the World’s Most Important People released by the likes of CNN, Forbes, and Time. Besides the obvious entrants like the president and the pope, the lists always also include a few buzzy, click-generating names: Emma Watson, perhaps, or Bono. Raju is certainly not in either of those categories. He is the environmental manager of a coalfield in northeastern India. The Jharia coalfield, where Raju works, is India’s biggest and most significant, covering some 170 square miles. It has been on fire, calamitously, since 1916; entire villages have collapsed into the smoking ground. Raju’s job is to put out the fire, so that his company can roughly double the mine’s output in the next five years. Whether—and how—he can perform this task will have much more effect on the future of the world than anything, with all due respect, likely to be accomplished by UN-addressing actresses or aging Irish rock stars. In other words, if one were compiling a list of the World’s Most Important People, Raju should be on it.

To judge by my visit, Raju is a busy guy. A line of functionaries with documents in envelopes wait outside the door of his surprisingly small office. Saying he has little time to talk, he waves aside a minion who offers to bring in tea. “The prime minister said the fires have to go out,” he tells me. “He said money was no issue. He made a statement a few days back. Things have to happen fast.” As I scribble notes, it occurs to me that a list of Most Important People should also include Prime Minister Narendra Modi—who just might deserve the top spot. For two decades, Americans have been barraged with news about the ascent of Beijing—its economic power, its enormous size, its rising voice in world affairs. Much less attention has been paid to New Delhi. This will change. Already Earth’s fastest-growing major economy and its biggest weapons importer, India is on track to become the world’s most populous nation (probably by 2022), to have its biggest economy (possibly by 2048), and potentially to build its biggest military force (perhaps by 2040).

What China was in the American imagination in the 1990s and 2000s, India will be in the next two decades—a cavalcade of superlatives, a focus of fears. Nowhere is this truer than on climate change, tomorrow’s single greatest challenge. For years, attention has focused on the role of China, the largest emitter of greenhouse gases, and the United States, one of the largest per capita emitters. In November 2014 the two nations promised substantial limits on greenhouse gas emissions for the first time; China has pledged that its carbon dioxide output would fall after 2030, while the US has vowed to cut its output by more than a quarter in about the same time frame. Indeed, China’s emissions have fallen so fast in the past year that many believe it may achieve its target ahead of time—the biggest stride yet in the fight against climate change.

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