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Changemaker Series: Insights from the Experts - Andy Ridley

Andy Ridley – one of the world’s most successful environmental movement creators, Founder of Earth Hour and Citizens of Great Barrier Reef shares his journey of creating two of the most successful 21st Century purpose-driven movements and how people-powered reef conservation is creating large-scale impact.


I was 13 years old when Live Aid took place at Wembley Stadium in London in 1985.

I grew up in England and was watching the concert on the TV and listening to it on the radio while travelling on a train. I clearly remember Bob Geldof and all those other musicians singing in simultaneous concerts around the world to raise money to help people in drought-ridden Ethiopia.

Nearly 40 years on, as much as the music, what stays with me is that feeling of connectivity and shared purpose; of us all being part of something bigger than ourselves.

1.9 billion people in 150 nations watched Live Aid, nearly 40% of the world’s population. It was the largest satellite link-up and television broadcast ever staged, and what was so cool about that, even as a teenager, was you could see it was possible to connect behind a common purpose at a global level.

Although obsolete technologically speaking today, Live Aid set the benchmark for me in getting mass buy-in. If you’ve got an authentic problem, make an authentic ask. We have a massive problem here and we need your help. Can you help us?

When some friends and I started Earth Hour in 2007, we asked people worldwide to turn their lights off simultaneously for one hour to heighten awareness of the perilous situation facing Earth. It started with one city, Sydney, but had grown to more than 7000 cities by the time I moved on from the project in 2015. What it truly demonstrated though was the power of a common purpose in bringing together hundreds of millions of people across the planet.

Likewise, Citizens of the Great Barrier Reef is creating a very 21st Century conservation organisation. About the size of Germany, the reef was significantly damaged by two massive sequential coral bleachings in 2016 and 2017 caused by El Niño and global warming. It also faces other dangers like the Crown of Thorns starfish.

Left: Crown of Thorns Starfish, Cairns (Credit: David Clode). Right: Coral Bleachings, Indonesia (Credit: Naja Bertolt Jensen)

After these sequential bleachings, scientists and reef managers identified the need to gather broadscale reconnaissance imagery from across the whole of this massive ecosystem. With very limited funds, we developed a plan to utilise as many boats, and people, already working on the reef to help capture this data. After three years we recruited a motley flotilla of tugs, dive boats, research vessels, tourism boats, and even a couple of superyachts to help get to these remote reefs and bring back the images. In essence it’s like an Uber research flotilla.

To date, 85,000 of these census images from the reef’s 348,700 kilometre footprint have been analysed by thousands of citizen scientists from 700 locations across 64 countries. It is one of the largest environmental broadscale reconnaissance marine surveys conducted.

Left: Citizen Scientists from around the world analysing images of the reef. Right: Barrier Reef Dive (images courtesy of Citizens of the Great Barrier Reef)

This data provides scientists with vital insights: helping to establish which reefs are the most important in rebooting and protecting others within the world’s largest living interconnected structure, and which are most vulnerable to the next mass bleaching.

There’s a lot of water under the bridge of course since Live Aid, and even the founding of Citizens of the Great Barrier Reef six years ago.

"To unify people collectively behind any global effort, make sure it’s real, and ensure there is a working business model to underpin it."

— Andy Ridley

But in essence, the touchpoint to connecting people across the world stands true, with an added proviso for 2023. To unify people collectively behind any global effort, make sure it’s real, and ensure there is a working business model to underpin it. Which is why the World Phone Amnesty is so powerful.

Each year humans throw away 5.3 billion mobile phones. If placed end to end, these discarded phones would stretch to the moon. And back.

That is a staggering finding.

"If the world can close its global circularity gap so products like cars, computers and mobile phones are not discarded but reused, the positive impact on reducing global emissions would be colossal."

— Andy Ridley

Here is another. In April, The Circularity Gap Report 2023 released by the Circle Economy Foundation in The Netherlands, (where I was CEO from 2015-2017) reported just 7.2% of the world’s economy is circular.

92.8% else of everything we extract from the planet, more than 100 billion tonnes of materials annually, is used once. It then goes into the ocean, landfill or is burnt into the atmosphere, producing around 33% of global emissions.

If the world can close its global circularity gap so products like cars, computers and mobile phones are not discarded but reused, the positive impact on reducing global emissions would be colossal.

Which is why World Phone Amnesty is such a strong model for change. The second hand market for mobile phones it has created can be scaled globally to offer individuals, corporates and governments a practical means to create change while helping people save money and feel good about doing something positive.

Like any successful global movement today with the momentum to move billions to action, it identifies a problem and offers a solution with a bottom line kicker. And in a world of interconnectivity, paradoxically it’s less about the talking, and more about the doing.

Find out more about the amazing work Andy and his team are doing at Citizens of the Great Barrier Reef and The Great Reef Census

Look out for the next episode of the Changemaker Series: Insights from the Experts where we'll be speaking to more influential individuals about purpose-driven movements, behavior change at scale, circularity success, and the balance between purpose and profit.

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