A rapid transition away from unabated coal use is essential to fulfilling the Paris climate goals. However, many countries are actively building and operating coal power plants. Here we use plant-level data to specify alternative trajectories for coal technologies in an integrated assessment model. We then quantify cost-effective retirement pathways for global and country-level coal fleets to limit long-term temperature change. We present our results using a decision-relevant metric: the operational lifetime limit. Even if no new plants are built, the lifetimes of existing units are reduced to approximately 35 years in a well-below 2 °C scenario or 20 years in a 1.5 °C scenario. The risk of continued coal expansion, including the near-term growth permitted in some Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs), is large. The lifetime limits for both 2 °C and 1.5 °C are reduced by 5 years if plants under construction come online and 10 years if all proposed projects are built.