Climate change is here and California is answering the call

Ashley Conrad-SaydahClimate patterns are changing globally, and it comes as no surprise that climate change remains the top-most perceived threat to our future, especially in a time where everyone is aware of the effects it's posing.

More countries are making the challenging call for a global response to deal with its impacts and the actions that need to be taken. We caught up with Ashley Conrad-Saydah to find out more about California’s place in combating climate change.

Ashley is a climate and energy strategist and public policy expert, based in California, USA. Her impressive career spans climate change, renewable energy, environmental justice and education, starting in academia before moving into government roles at the Bureau of Land Management and California Environmental Protection Agency, and now independent consulting.

California is a state all too familiar with the effects of climate change seeing increasing temperatures, rising sea levels and raging wildfires which have consumed over 4 million acres in 2020 alone. In response, California has taken bold action in fighting the impacts of climate change, implementing landmark policies focused on reducing its greenhouse gas emissions. California was also one of the founding members of the US Climate Alliance – together with New York and Washington – formed on June 1, 2017, following President Donald Trump’s announcement that he would be withdrawing the United States from the Paris Agreement.

When discussing California's approach to climate change, Ashley explains that it is largely mitigation focused – an approach which targets the reduction and prevention of greenhouse gas emissions compared to adaptation, which looks at adapting to life as it is now in our changing climate and working to reduce our vulnerability to its inevitable effects. Ashley elaborates that “often embedding adaptive capacity and improving resilience within a community comes as a reactive effort rather than a proactive one. As we experience more and more of these natural stressors, we’re having to figure out how to be more proactive.”

The need for a more resilient approach to climate change is something Ashley dealt with during her tenure as Deputy Secretary for Climate Policy at the California Environmental Protection Agency when Tuolomne County was consumed by the 2013 Rim Fire, releasing an estimated 11 million metric tons of greenhouse gas.In response to this disaster, Ashley co-led the creation and implementation of the Community and Watershed Resilience Program, a $70.3 million grant designed to integrate mitigation, resilience and adaptation in preparedness for future wildfires.

Ashley is a strong advocate for nature-based climate solutions, such as conservation, restoration and improved land management.2 In her capacity as a Research Affiliate at the California-China Climate Institute, she worked with The Nature Conservancy to produce a paper and story map detailing opportunities to accelerate investments in nature-based climate solutions state-wide. She is currently leading additional research for the Institute questioning why California hasn’t invested in natural climate solutions and instead choosing to make “huge investments in transportation as a standalone, energy as a standalone and not advancing a more comprehensive, coherent approach where we understand the push and pull between each of those sectors. 

For Ashley, breaking down this sectoral approach is one of the biggest challenges in fighting the climate emergency: “We’ve put climate in a little box instead of saying, ‘it’s part of everything’.” California is already making headway on moving away from more siloed decision-making with its Strategic Growth Council, which brings together secretaries from different state agencies such as the Natural Resources Agency, the Health and Human Services Agency and the State Transportation Agency. The Council is responsible for each agency working collaboratively to support growth, sustainability, health and equity across the state. Ashley believes that “the second all of these departments are in the same space having that conversation, it already starts breaking down some of these sector-based approaches. The more we can do that, the more we’ll get at this idea of mobility and emissions reductions being tied to health or tied to job creation, for example, and not being disconnected pieces that we’re trying to accomplish without coordination.”

Lastly, Ashley highlights the important role local decision-makers play in tackling climate change and building resilience in their communities. “Local electeds need to communicate in such a way that people understand that they have a bigger choice in the way their communities develop and that the decisions they make have great weight in terms of global implications.”

What could the transportation sector do?

We also discussed what specific role the transportation sector could take in reducing greenhouse gas emissions, which in California, produces about 40% of its total emissions. Renowned for being car-centric, some cities around the Golden State are taking action to reduce the amount of single-occupancy vehicle trips by improving access to walking, cycling and public transit. Triggering a bold move in September 2020, California Governor Gavin Newsom pledged an ambitious target for all new passenger vehicles and trucks sold in the state to be emissions free by 2035. A similar regulation had already been adopted in 2019 that requires all passenger shuttles at California’s largest airports to be emissions free by 2035.

Improving the sustainability of California’s freight transport sector is also of great importance to the state. California’s freight network contributes about one-third of its GDP but is also responsible for generating a high portion of its greenhouse gas emissions. Ashley tells us about the California Sustainable Freight Action Plan, developed in 2016, which sets out recommendations for a long-term 2050 vision for its freight system. When discussing what other actions could be taken, Ashley proposed the need for “more upstream producer responsibility and more downstream action from the waste sector” to reduce the amount of packaging used, for instance, more of these goods can fit into one truck and thus reduce the amount of freight moving around the state. Ashley also highlights that with less or lighter packaging there is an opportunity for new mobility, such as e-scooters, to be part of the first/last mile freight journey. Although California isn’t at this point yet, Ashley is confident that the state will continue along its innovative path and remain a “great role model and leader in climate action.”

Challenges and opportunities of the pandemic

We couldn’t not ask Ashley about the COVID-19 pandemic and what she thinks has been the positive outcomes of lockdown. “Definitely the benefit of seeing data and behavioural change that we could have never enforced,” she muses. “There’s no way we could have asked for everyone to stay at home in order to see the changes in transportation emissions. Of course, what we saw was a plummet in emissions worldwide and that, for me, is a silver lining of the pandemic – we’ll actually learn how behaviour change on a global scale can make a difference when it comes to protecting the things we care about.”

However, the idea of cities no longer being a hub for office working, retail, and hospitality is one of Ashley’s concerns for how the pandemic has changed our lives. There is a risk that if companies opt for permanent remote working and hand back the keys to their offices, people will have the motivation to move out of cities into suburban areas, thus increasing urban sprawl. Ashley believes that it is key for local decision-makers to lead conversations about how vacant offices could be repurposed, or how people can be encouraged to use public transit or active travel modes instead of their cars. “It’s beholden to all of us to put our ideas forward and say, ‘what does my post-pandemic life look like?’ We should be contacting our local representatives, holding an open meeting and asking people what they value and how they want to come out of this pandemic in the right way.” Finally, with a change in federal leadership coming early in 2021, Ashley looks forward to federal policies “drawing the best examples from the states.” She expects to see “big leaps nationally to address climate change, which will, in turn, drive job creation, environmental protection, and public health improvements.”


Get our latest news and opinions

We are Steer

Yes, you are in the right place. After 40 years, we have changed our name from Steer Davies Gleave to mark our growing international footprint and our expanding portfolio into markets beyond transportation.

Explore our new website to learn more about Steer: who we are, how we work and what our future holds.