Unpacking carbon-neutral Canadian adventures

Exploring the rich flora and fauna along the Bruce Trail | Elise Arsenault
Exploring the rich flora and fauna along the Bruce Trail | Elise Arsenault

By Robin Esrock

How can we travel and still have a positive impact on our environment? It’s a big question, and it’s become more pertinent as the hooks of climate change continue to sink deeper. Heatwaves, droughts, floods, storms, and other extreme weather events have made everyone conscious of our impact on the planet, especially in tourism. Conscious travellers want to be a positive force on the planet, not part of the problem. With this in mind, let’s unpack the nuts and bolts of Great Canadian Trails carbon offset program. 

Swallowtail Lighthouse, Grand Manan Island |  <i>Tourism New Brunswick</i>

Decarbonization in tourism is quite simple: your carbon emissions are measured and calculated, factoring in your transport, meals, and accommodation. This is not as difficult as one might think. South Pole, the world’s largest carbon project developer, has a very simple footprint calculator for individuals on their site. You enter your destination, the number of nights, method of transport, and what sort of grid network you’ll be accessing, and the calculator estimates your average emissions. GCT take it further, analyzing all aspects of its itineraries from the trip development onwards, calculating and buffering the total. For a typical guest on one of Great Canadian Trails' self-guided itineraries, this works out to about 150kg of carbon emissions per week. Note this footprint increases substantially based on flights, which is a separate component, not included in their tour. Their trip carbon calculation is based on the land portion of the trip.

Once you know how much carbon you’re going to be contributing to the environment, it becomes clearer what is needed to offset those emissions, primarily through the purchase of carbon credits. South Pole, which operates in 30 countries worldwide, has various projects supporting renewable energy, promoting biodiversity, protecting wildlife, and supporting sustainable local communities. In each case, these projects would not be operating without the support of carbon credits, a benchmark known as additionality. Each credit purchased reclaims your footprint, which results in your carbon-neutral adventure. Carbon emissions do not respect international borders, and internationally funded projects in developing countries are often larger, less expensive, subject to third-party auditing, and have more impact. Canadian initiatives are being added to various carbon offset portfolios, but they tend to be substantially more expensive with a higher cost to offset. The good news is that the ever-increasing demand by companies and consumers to offset their carbon is fueling the demand for more projects, spanning land initiatives (forestation, renewable energy) and blue carbon projects like seaweed farms and mangrove protection. 

Bac Lieu Vietnam Wind Project |  <i>South Pole</i> Supporting communities sustainable developments Kariba REDD+ forest protection in Zimbabwe |  <i>South Pole</i>


Great Canadian Trails purchases carbon credits at no additional cost to its guests, investing in projects that include a wind farm, forest reclamation, wildlife protection, and renewable energy. These South Pole projects are professionally managed, accountable, and verified by third parties, in line with UN Sustainable Development goals. Being part of the World Expeditions Travel Group also adds up to a significantly higher carbon-offset investment. Examples of their supported projects include the Bac Lieu Wind Energy project in Vietnam, which generates clean energy and local employment. In Zimbabwe, the Kariba REDD+ protects forest and wildlife across 785,000 hectares of land, benefitting some 85,000 people and mitigating more than 1.7m tons of carbon emissions. Over in southwest China, carbon credits support 95 small-scale hydroelectric projects that generate clean energy in a region dependent on fossil fuels, while promoting education and gender quality. Something to think about as you pedal along the mussel-rich coastline of Prince Edward Island or stop for a taster inside a sustainable winery in Niagara or the Okanagan. 

Vineyard in Niagara on the Lake

Using muscles instead of gas to get from A to B is an ideal way to experience a local environment and benefit the environment. After all, outdoor adventure is perhaps the most carbon-friendly way of travelling, especially when you do them in summer months that require no heating. Since GCT developed many of its itineraries with the support of not-for-profit, volunteer-driven organizations like the Trans Canada Trail, the East Coast Trail Association and the Bruce Trail Association, a donation is made to these organizations on behalf of every guest, with funds directed towards trail preservation, development, and conservation. 

Quebec's P'tit Train du Nord rail trail |  <i>©Tourisme Laurentides</i>

There’s a lot of climate doom out there, but there are positive developments making real change every day. In a 24-hour news cycle, there’s little time (or frankly inclination) from mainstream media to focus on important and substantial climate-positive work quietly taking place across many dozens of industries. Good news does not spread as quickly as bad news. Bouncing back from the pandemic, tourism has had a painful yet unique opportunity to evolve and adjust for a more sustainable future. For Great Canadian Trails, this is nothing new. The company has had a Responsible Travel mandate from its inception, offering carbon-neutral itineraries long before it became fashionable to do so. GCT has always focused its energy and resources on the kind of travel that leaves a small, positive impact on the communities and eco-systems in which it operates, so that guests can continue to hike, bike and travel in good health, and with a refreshingly clean conscience. 

Robin Esrock is a renowned travel journalist and the bestselling author of The Great Canadian Bucket List.

Sustainable Travel

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