Energy ills and an ancient Scottish pile

Glamis Castle is not the most obvious setting for me to engage in a spot of contemplation about how the world’s energy needs could be met and climate crisis averted. Even less would I expect to be doing so in the company of a Nobel Prize-winning physicist.

Recently, however, I found myself engaged in just such a conversation with Professor Zhores Alferov, a modest man who, nonetheless, believes that his work just might hold the key to these great challenges of the age, if only scientists and governments would work together to seek answers that undoubtedly exist.

The occasion was a dinner held by Dundee and St Andrews universities in honour of their shared honorary graduand, who is credited with playing the leading scientific role in developing technology on which mobile communications is based. Though he quickly points out – not, one suspects, for the first or 10,000th time – that the purpose of his life’s work was not to invent the mobile phone.

Alferov won the Nobel for his work on semiconductor hetero-structures and believes that they are also the way forward to build photovoltaic cells in solar concentrators that would be cost-competitive against oil and nuclear power. In other words, a currently inconceivable increase in the application of solar power could transform the world’s energy systems as early as 2030 – if only the necessary commitment was made to it.

This basic contention took us on to a wider discussion about how such outcomes might be achieved. Prof Alferov, who has worked at the same institute in Leningrad/St Petersburg for more than half-a-century, is a member of the Russian Duma and sits with the Communists, though not a party member, for the straightforward reason that the Communists “were always good for education and science”.

Even more significantly, he recalls, international scientific co-operation was encouraged – particularly with the US – even at the height of the Cold War. So his scientific breakthroughs were achieved through the kind of close co-operation which is now actually more difficult to achieve in our world of competitive markets and most of the best Russian scientists moving to America.

Need this be so? If science and technology are capable of meeting the great challenges of the age should a way not be found for them to do so on the most rational, co-operative basis possible?

If Prof Alferov and 100 of his intellectual peers were given free rein to produce the low-carbon solutions the planet requires, is it conceivable that they would fail to do so?

Nowadays, however, it is less likely to be scientists who apply their collective minds to such problems as people who think they can make money out of them.

A few days after my Glamis encounter, I was reading about a gathering on Necker Island, in the Bahamas, owned by Richard Branson, in which the bearded one brought together heads of Google, Microsoft and a few other global corporations to turn their minds to climate change and be inspired by Tony Blair.

While it is undoubtedly desirable that these great enterprises should be adapting their technologies to this agenda, they should not be relied on to deliver alone.

Where, I wonder, is the United Nations in all of this?

If ever there was a challenge that affects every citizen on Earth, it is surely – as the name implies – global warming. If ever there was a need for the greatest intellectual resources of the planet to be concentrated on a common cause, this is it.

Yet the search for the really big answers on the scale envisaged by my new friend, Prof Alferov, is being conducted in a piecemeal way, driven far more by the market than by any internationalist ethos or organisation.

I offer one very practical example of this.

The growing of crops to produce biofuels offers a tantalising opportunity. If properly managed, it could not only eradicate much of our fossil-fuel dependency, but also bring prosperity to countries in the southern hemisphere which are best placed to produce these resources.

However, at the other end of the scale of possibilities, biofuels could become another utter disaster for the world – replacing food crops instead of being developed on otherwise unproductive land, destroying rainforests, being exploited for external profit rather than developed as indigenous resources, leading to conflict and wars, just like oil in the 20th century.

At present, there is a dangerous rush to demonise biofuels because of worrying evidence that the latter set of possibilities is emerging rather than the former. But this is only happening because there is a complete vacuum where there should be international protocols and prohibitions.

It is all being left to the market, which means that energy crops are grown where it is most profitable rather than where it is most appropriate.

That is the issue that should be addressed, but it can only be done through urgent international agreements, which would exist by now if the scale of both the opportunity and the threat had been accepted and acted on.

Where is this global leadership to come from?

I am sure that, with another session at Glamis Castle, Prof Alferov and I could provide the answers.