At the Johannesburg World Summit on Sustainable Development (WSSD) in 2002, a transnational plea for partnerships that would allow a diverse array of actors to take joint action towards the shared goal of Sustainable Development (SD) has been put forward. The WSSD shifted the focus of SD from normative statements of what should be done to strategies for implementation. The RCE initiative is a direct response to this important shift from words to actions and also answered the global call for active partnerships.
In 2003, following the WSSD and the UN General Assembly Resolution on the DESD, the UNU, through the UNU Institute of Advanced Studies (UNU-IAS), launched a programme on Education for Sustainable Development (ESD). Under the guidance of the then UNU Rector, Hans van Ginkel, UNU-IAS developed a concept paper on RCEs and presented it to the international community during the Twelfth Session of the Commission on Sustainable Development (CSD-12) in April 2004.
The first seven RCEs were acknowledged at the UNU-UNESCO Conference on Globalization and Education for Sustainable Development (Nagoya, June 2005), followed by five more towards the end of 2005 and early 2006.
The Ubuntu Alliance, in its meeting in April 2006, established the Committee of Peers for the RCEs, to discuss ways to promote RCEs, to review applications and provide recommendations to UNU to acknowledge new RCEs. The Committee, at its first meeting on 6 December 2006 in Paris, recommended UNU to acknowledge 23 new RCEs. The RCE network continues to expand and today there are RCEs in Africa, the Americas, Asia, Europe, the Middle East and the Pacific.
The RCE Vienna was officially founded and acknowledged by UNU in January 2011.