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Protesters stand up as Canadian Environment Minister Peter Kent speaks at the climate conference in Durban, South Africa, on Wednesday.

With just days remaining to salvage the Kyoto climate treaty, a mood of gloom is descending over the negotiations. Even the most optimistic diplomats are finding it hard to imagine how a deal can be reached.

Briefings by the major negotiating players on Wednesday were a study in contrasts: frustration and anger among Kyoto's supporters, compared with calmness and confidence among Kyoto's opponents, including Canada.

Even a weak compromise deal promoted by the European Union – an agreement on a vague "road map" or "mandate" that could eventually lead to a legally binding treaty after 2020 – now seems in serious doubt.

Two of the biggest emitters, China and the United States, continue to set conditions on their support for a binding treaty – and neither will make a move without the other. China wants to be considered a developing country, and as such have lower obligations. The United States wants all countries to be treated equally.

"What is really frustrating to see is this conference is again hijacked by the ping-pong game between the U.S. and China," said Jo Leinen, leader of a European Parliament delegation at the talks.

Among the major emitters, only the European Union is prepared to extend its legal obligations under Kyoto. This would keep Kyoto technically alive, but its rules would apply to a tiny fraction of global emissions, leaving it increasingly impotent.

This, in turn, would make it impossible for the world to reach its official target of limiting the average temperature rise to 2 C. The rise instead could be twice as much as the official goal, with disastrous consequences for poorer countries, environmentalists say.

A senior leader from the Maldives pleaded with the Durban negotiators to keep Kyoto alive or face the likelihood that many island nations such as his – which is barely above sea level – would be wiped off the world map because of rising oceans. But there was no sign that the negotiators will heed the plea.

"The current mood and tenor of negotiations seems to be heading for a 4 degrees Celsius temperature-rise pact," said Srinivas Krishnaswamy of the Climate Action Network.

Connie Hedegaard, the European commissioner on climate change, lashed out at the big emitters that are reluctant to sign on to the general principle of seeking a binding treaty in the future. "There are not many hours left, and we want to encourage the big emitters to come forward with more clarity on their real positions," she said.

"If they will not even say whether they will commit in the future, I think they take on unbearable responsibility, because it will have very severe consequences for all of us."

Ms. Hedegaard criticized the growing number of countries that prefer to postpone any treaty negotiations until after 2015, the end date for a three-year review of the climate situation and the domestic plans of the major emitters. "We don't think this is the time to reflect," she said.

Privately, negotiators say there is no chance of a substantial global agreement before the 2015 review date, meaning that a deal wouldn't take effect until 2020 or later. "The process is really going downhill," said Radoslav Dimitrov, a member of the European Union delegation at Durban. "Some people are saying this might be the demise of the whole UN negotiating regime."

Many emitters are considering a Russian proposal to tear open the basic premise of Kyoto: different levels of responsibility by industrialized nations and developing nations, with countries such as China and India categorized as developing nations without any legal obligations. The chief U.S. negotiator, Todd Stern, said the division of responsibilities under Kyoto is "radically inconsistent" with the realities of today.

Canadian Environment Minister Peter Kent repeated his sharp criticism of Kyoto at a high-level session of the Durban talks. "Kyoto, for Canada, is in the past," Mr. Kent told a large audience of delegates and climate negotiators on Wednesday.

"For Canada, the Kyoto Protocol is not where the solution lies," he said. "It is an agreement that covers fewer than 30 per cent of global emissions."

As he spoke, six Canadian activists stood up and silently protested by turning their backs on him, wearing T-shirts that said: "Turn your back on Canada."

Security guards quickly rushed over and escorted them away, leading them through a narrow corridor at the back of the room and then evicting them from the conference. But the protesters won louder applause than Mr. Kent, whose speech was greeted by a smattering of polite applause from delegates.