Developing countries set the highest bar possible yesterday for the U.N. climate change talks, demanding that wealthy countries ante up with new carbon emission targets yet warning them to expect no binding commitments from others in return.

Meeting in Durban, South Africa, diplomats from 194 countries opened two weeks of negotiations aimed at lowering the amount of greenhouse gases entering the Earth's atmosphere. Developing countries made clear that the best way to accomplish that is for countries to work within the Kyoto Protocol, a 1997 treaty that is in danger of falling apart.

Dubbed the "African COP," or conference of the parties to the U.N. climate convention, leaders from across the African continent opened the 17th annual summit by calling on wealthy nations to get serious about curbing global warming.

"For most people in the developing world and Africa, climate change is a matter of life and death," South African President Jacob Zuma told thousands of delegates. "Durban must take us many steps forward toward a solution that saves tomorrow today."

"We, the other Africans, without a doubt more than other people today are seriously feeling the negative impacts of climate change, which seriously jeopardize the survival of whole swaths of our populations," said Idriss Déby, president of Chad. Déby berated industrialized countries for not having met the goal of the Kyoto Protocol to lower emissions an average of 5.2 percent from 1990 levels.

"This means the behavior of industrialized countries imperils the world. And this is a danger that will not spare the rich, and it will not spare the poor, although the poor are the most exposed to it," he said.

The legal form of a new climate change treaty is just one of several issues up for discussion at the Durban climate talks. But it is, without a doubt, the most politically and emotionally charged. With the first commitment period of the Kyoto Protocol coming to an end next year, industrialized countries will have to decide whether to submit new emission targets for a second phase of the treaty that only requires wealthy nations to cut carbon.

Kyoto pact: Who leaves? Who stays?
Some countries, including Japan, Canada and Russia, have already said they will not enter new commitments. Canada reiterated that yesterday in Ottawa when Environment Minister Peter Kent described joining Kyoto as one of the government's biggest "blunders," according to the Associated Press.

Kent declined to confirm or deny a CTV News report that the Canadian government will announce its formal withdrawal from the Kyoto Protocol next month, but stressed that Canada wants to see an agreement that includes all major emitters, among them China and India.

Environmental groups blasted Canada, and one group accused the country of trying to "sabotage" the negotiations.

The European Union, meanwhile, is trying broker a deal by offering to submit targets for a second commitment period of the Kyoto Protocol as long as countries develop a road map to a global treaty. Specifically, it hopes to see countries sign a mandate or something slightly less formal that would set a target of 2015 to establish a legally binding treaty that would force both the United States and China to cut carbon.

"Kyoto alone will not be sufficient to address all the needs of today. It will only cover 16, 15 percent of global emissions, including the E.U., which is responsible for about 11 percent of global emissions," said Tomasz Chruszczow, Poland's top climate negotiator.

"We need a global framework that would supplement what we have now that would really involve all major economies in the effort," Chruszczow said. "In order to say yes to the second commitment period, we need reassurance. We need the road map."

Developing countries, however, don't seem to be interested -- at least in the posturing opening days of the conference.

Venezuela sees 'blackmail'
"The Kyoto Protocol is the cornerstone of the climate regime," said Su Wei, China's lead climate change negotiator. "It is hardly conceivable that a country would leave the Kyoto Protocol to do more."

Venezuela's lead negotiator, Claudia Salerno, called the offer "blackmail," saying, "The second commitment period of the Kyoto Protocol has been taken hostage today in Durban."

She accused industrialized countries of threatening not to comply with an international legal commitment. Lamenting what she called "the selfishness of these predatory economies," Salerno -- whose country is one of the world's largest exporters of crude oil -- said "we cannot save the future by destroying the present."

The United States, meanwhile, is sitting on the sidelines of the Kyoto debate, since it never ratified the treaty. But it is hardly an incidental player.

The United States' absence is directly linked to Kyoto's failure to bind major developing countries like China and India to emission cuts. U.S. Deputy Envoy Jonathan Pershing made clear yesterday that a basic requirement for any future agreement will be that it apply fully to all major emitters. He dodged a question about whether Congress would even accept a deal that roped China into a legally binding regime, though, and argued that the "narrow dynamics of form" are not as important right now as on-the-ground actions.

"Irrespective of Kyoto's disposition, the world is acting," Pershing said.

Reprinted from Climatewire with permission from Environment & Energy Publishing, LLC., 202-628-6500