Pathways, targets and temporalities: Analysing English agriculture's net zero futures

Rob Booth

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Net zero emissions targets are of growing international relevance given their increasing uptake by governments across the world. This article analyses net zero targets as a distinctly future-oriented approach to environmental governance. It does so from a critical perspective, examining whether net zero targets serve to reproduce the existing temporalities of environmental policymaking or whether they represent a break with current practices and, in turn, develop new temporalities and novel ways of engaging with the future. In order to do this, this article focuses on efforts to reduce agricultural emissions in England to net zero. In 2019 the United Kingdom introduced legislation requiring a reduction of greenhouse gas emissions to net zero by 2050. This, in turn, has encouraged actors in the food system to produce various imagined pathways to net-zero agriculture. This article critically analyses how these imagined pathways are discursively produced by influential actors within this sphere through a critical discourse analysis of recent grey literature produced by Defra, the Climate Change Committee and the National Farmers’ Union. It asserts that, to an extent, the net zero and target oriented approaches enshrined in current environmental policymaking represent the ongoing reproduction of both an ‘empty’ modernist future with some post-political dimensions. This assessment is, however, nuanced by recognising the tensions that emerge within and between the state and non-state institutions producing these discourses. Ultimately, however, the net zero transition draws actors together around a techno-optimistic vision of an agricultural future defined by sustainable intensification and negative emissions technologies. In doing so, it serves to suppress calls for transformative change in agriculture based on social as well as material change.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)1-21
Number of pages21
JournalEnvironment and Planning E: Nature and Space
Early online date14 Dec 2021
Publication statusE-pub ahead of print - 14 Dec 2021


  • Agriculture
  • temporality
  • futures
  • net zero
  • policy discourse


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