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ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

From NPR News, it's ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.

MADELEINE BRAND, host:

And I'm Madeleine Brand.

Remember when the scariest environmental villains were chemicals destroying the Ozone layer? Well, back in 1987, the most effective environmental treaty ever was passed and it eliminated that problem.

But as NPR's Richard Harris reports, it may have created a new problem.

RICHARD HARRIS: In the basement of the Hart Senate office building on Capitol Hill, a thirsty sapper feeds a few coins into one of the many soda machines.

(Soundbite of soda machine)

HARRIS: As it happens, machines like this, along with refrigerators and air conditioners, use gases called HFCs as coolants. HFCs are nonflammable and they don't hurt the Ozone. But Kert Davies at Greenpeace says when it comes to global warming, they're not so good.

Mr. KERT DAVIES (Research Director, Greenpeace): These gases are tremendously powerful greenhouse gases. We call them the super greenhouse gases. They are the global warming threat that no one's really heard about.

HARRIS: Molecule for molecule, they are hundreds of times better at trapping heat in the atmosphere than the most important greenhouse gas, carbon dioxide. HFCs were invented as a replacement for refrigerants like CFCs, which were destroying ozone. The good news is, at the moment, HFCs are only responsible for a few percent of human-induced global warming.

Samuel LaBudde from a small nonprofit called The Environmental Investigation Agency says, the bad news is global production is poised to take off to satisfy the world's growing desire for fridges and air conditioners.

Mr. SAMUEL LABUDDE (Campaign Director, Environmental Investigation Agency): Right now, what's happening is that China and India are beginning to invest very, very heavily in HFC production.

HARRIS: LaBudde's group started out investigating the illegal trade of banned Ozone-destroying chemicals. But they quickly realized that the perfectly legal trade in HFCs could do far more damage if the industry grows as fast as is now projected.

Mr. LABUDDE: So much so that by 2050, the global warming effects of HFCs will be sufficient to cancel out all the reductions in CO2 that we're looking at getting under the Untied Nations Copenhagen Climate Talks Agreement, and things of that nature.

HARRIS: Environmental groups have been trying to do something about HFCs for well over a decade. Finally, there's progress. Two small countries have proposed phasing out the chemicals by amending the treaty that protects our Ozone layer, the 1987 Montreal Protocol.

Last week, the United States, Canada and Mexico agreed to support a treaty amendment that wouldn't ban HFCs entirely, but that would dramatically reduce their production. Of course, that means the air conditioning and refrigeration industries have to find something else to use. That brings us back to the soda machines in the Senate office building.

(Soundbite of soda machine)

HARRIS: Kert Davies from Greenpeace feeds a couple of dollar bills into a Pepsi machine.

Mr. DAVIES: Bit of a robot machine, isn't it? I've never seen that before. Kind of picks it up and gives it to you.

HARRIS: The robot is showy, but that's not the real point of this test machine.

Mr. DAVIES: What's novel about this machine is that it's not like the old-fashioned vending machines or your refrigerator at home. The cooling is done with carbon dioxide.

HARRIS: Which is a greenhouse gas, but these machines use so little that that's not an issue. The machine is not only free of HFCs, it also uses less electricity. Carbon dioxide doesn't work in refrigerators. But hydrocarbons, like propane and isobutane, do. In fact, they are in 100 million fridges worldwide. Problem solved?

Mr. KARIM AMRANE (Vice President of Regulatory Policy and Research, Air Conditioning, Heating and Refrigeration Institute): Well, it's not as simple as it sounds.

HARRIS: Karim Amrane is at the Air Conditioning, Heating and Refrigeration Institute, a trade group. He says carbon dioxide may work in vending machines, but it would never work to run the huge air chillers in the hotel, where we meet, and neither would flammable chemicals like isobutane.

Mr. AMRANE: Imagine if you had 1,000 pounds or more of isobutane in your chiller in this building, and something happened. I mean, the entire building probably will be wiped out.

HARRIS: Even so, his industry knows that HFCs eventually have to go. So, they are now scrambling to find substitutes that will solve the current problem without creating yet another.

Richard Harris, NPR News.

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