He has a background in journalism, having started his career in 1982 on the China Environment Journal, where he worked until 1986. He rose to become the deputy chief editor of China Youth Daily between 1989-93 before becoming director of CYLC, Central Committee, China Youth Research Center.
Between 1994 and 2003 he moved through a series of deputy directorships at the State-Owned Assets Supervision and Administration Commission; the State Bureau of Quality and Technical Supervision; the Economic Restructuring Office of the State Council.
He was elected to in 2003. He is the number one deputy director (第一副局长) of the Chinese State Environmental Protection Administration (SEPA, Chinese: 国家环境保护总局). In March 2008 SEPA's name was changed to the Ministry of Environmental Protection and Pan's title became Vice Minister.
BusinessWeek online has described him as 'a courageous voice for a greener China.' "Pan has taken on some of China's biggest industries over their pollution records and forced them to clean up," said BusinessWeek in a July 2005, interview.
Pan believes the fundamental cause of the global environmental crisis is the capitalist system. "The environmental crisis has become a new means of transferring the economic crisis," he said.
He was named Person of the Year 2007 by British weekly politics magazine New Statesman. It labeled Pan "...a rare, if not lone, public voice within the Chinese government warning that disaster threatens unless development is checked" and quoted him as saying "This miracle will end soon because the environment can no longer keep pace."
Veteran China journalist and current editor of Chinadialogue.net Isabel Hilton has characterised the massive project Pan has taken on in championing a green China: "He is trying to move a mountain rather than climb it."
He was one of the recipients of the 2010 Ramon Magsaysay Award for "for his enterprising leadership and undeniable success in demonstrating how village-level economic development can be achieved without damage to the environment."