Reducing Inefficiency in Carbon Auctions with Imperfect Competition (Papers Track)

Kira Goldner (Columbia University); Nicole Immorlica (Microsoft Research); Brendan Lucier (Microsoft Research New England)

Paper PDF


We study auctions for carbon licenses, a policy tool used to control the social cost of pollution. Each identical license grants the right to produce a unit of pollution. Each buyer (i.e., firm that pollutes during the manufacturing process) enjoys a decreasing marginal value for licenses, but society suffers an increasing marginal cost for each license distributed. The seller (i.e., the government) can choose a number of licenses to auction, and wishes to maximize societal welfare: the total economic value of the buyers minus the social cost. Motivated by emission license markets deployed in practice, we focus on uniform price auctions with a price floor and/or price ceiling. The seller has distributional information about the market, and their goal is to tune the auction parameters to maximize expected welfare. The target benchmark is the maximum expected welfare achievable by any such auction under truth-telling behavior. Unfortunately, the uniform price auction is not truthful, and strategic behavior can significantly reduce (even below zero) the welfare of a given auction configuration. We use tools from theoretical computer science and algorithmic game theory to address the strategic vulnerabilities of these auctions. We describe a subclass of "safe-price" auctions for which the welfare at any Bayes-Nash equilibrium will approximate the welfare under truth-telling behavior. We then show that the better of a safe-price auction, or a truthful auction that allocates licenses to only a single buyer, will approximate the target benchmark. In particular, we show how to choose a number of licenses and a price floor so that the worst-case welfare, at any equilibrium, is a constant approximation to the best achievable welfare under truth-telling after excluding the welfare contribution of a single buyer. This provides a concrete recommendation for how to set the auction parameters in practice in order to achieve guarantees, even in the face of strategic participants.