The UK Space Agency's International Partnership Programme (IPP) has awarded a contract worth £14.2 million to a sustainability software and data company to protect against deforestation and improve forest management across 300 million hectares of tropical forests - an area 12 times the size of the United Kingdom.

In the largest contract so far to come from the £150 million UK Space Agency programme, Edinburgh-based company Ecometrica will lead an international consortium that brings together many of the world's leading experts on forest monitoring as part of the IPP's 'Forests 2020' project..

As part of the project, Ecometrica will sub-contract experts from the Universities of Edinburgh and Leicester, and fellow Edinburgh company Carbomap, a specialist in LiDAR forest mapping. The project will also see Ecometrica bring together various partners in Brazil, Colombia, Ghana, Indonesia, Kenya and Mexico, where Earth observation laboratories will be set up to assess threats to rainforests and help direct conservation resources. The project is due to complete in March 2020.

Launched earlier in 2016, the IPP brings together British space knowledge, expertise and capability to "provide a sustainable, economic or societal benefit to undeveloped nations and developing economies".

Ray Fielding, Head of the UK Space Agency IPP, said: “The programme will identify innovative ways that space technology can help in this important area, which has been identified by the UN as key for sustainable development, and we intend to make a real difference to the people on the ground working to preserve the world’s forests.”

Dr Richard Tipper, executive chairman of Ecometrica, continued: “Working with several organisations in each of the six countries, including research institutions, NGOs and conservationists on the ground, this project will help improve the capacity to implement effective forest and ecosystem monitoring services. It is estimated that improved monitoring systems, which enable a more targeted approach, could help prevent the loss of four to six million hectares of forest over the next decade: that's an area more than half the size of Scotland, or two to three times the size of Wales!

"We all know how important tropical rainforests are to the survival of the global ecosystem, but most people are only just waking up to the fact that we need to use technology to make sure conservation efforts are effective and properly directed. The Earth Observation platforms will ensure threats such as fires and illegal logging are detected sooner, and make the response on the ground faster and more cost effective."

The Forests 2020 project follows Ecometrica's earlier success in leading the UK Space Agency's International Partnership Space Programme (IPSP) in 2015/16, which created a network of virtual regional Earth Observation Labs in Brazil and Mexico to develop suitable products for the forest sector.