According to an elementary result in quantum computing, any unitary transformation on a composite system can be generated using 2-local unitaries, i.e., those that act only on two subsystems. Beside its fundamental importance in quantum computing, this result can also be regarded as a statement about the dynamics of systems with local Hamiltonians: although locality puts various constraints on the short-term dynamics, it does not restrict the possible unitary evolutions that a composite system with a general local Hamiltonian can experience after a sufficiently long time. We ask if such universality remains valid in the presence of conservation laws and global symmetries. In particular, can k-local symmetric unitaries on a composite system generate all symmetric unitaries on that system? Surprisingly, it turns out that the answer is negative in the case of continuous symmetries, such as U(1) and SU(2): generic symmetric unitaries cannot be implemented, even approximately, using local symmetric unitaries. In the context of quantum thermodynamics this means that generic energy-conserving unitary transformations on a composite system cannot be implemented by applying local energy-conserving unitary transformations on the components. We also show how this no-go theorem can be circumvented via catalysis: any globally energy-conserving unitary can be implemented using a sequence of 2-local energy-conserving unitaries, provided that one can use a single ancillary qubit (catalyst).