Every day for the last five years, Zou Yi has photographed Beijing’s smog-cloaked skyline from his 13th-floor apartment, but there is something different in the air this year.

This winter, save a few grey days, the sky has been a brilliant blue, suggesting the city may finally be making progress against air pollution – an issue so dire in previous years that some periods were dubbed an “airpocalypse”.

“It feels like life has returned to the city,” said Zou, a former property investor, told AFP.

Last year Beijing enjoyed the best air quality on recent record, with a steady increase in “good air” days since pollution control measures were implemented in 2013, according to the capital’s environmental protection bureau.

In the last quarter of 2017 alone, the density of dangerous haze has dropped by 53.8% year-on-year. Haze is measured by the level of PM2.5, referring to particles that have a diameter of less than 2.5 micrometers, about 3% the diameter of a human hair, floating in the air. These particles can penetrate deep into the lungs and even enter the bloodstream.

Beijings Central Business District on a clear day.

Analysts said this improvement was sparked by favourable weather conditions and more aggressive enforcement of environmental rules.

From his home, Zou has an almost 360-degree view of the Central Business District – an urban landscape that he used to regard as “murky, static even”.

He has created a massive composite of nearly 2,000 photographs showing the Beijing Television tower enveloped in differing shades of grey and blue.

“Now that the air is good, I’m discovering that ours is a city of colour, full of emotion and rhythm,” the 50-year-old said.

‘I was a polluter’

On a recent clear, below-zero day, 65-year-old Tian Yuan and five other retirees were immersed in a lively card game at a Beijing public park.

“Give us more clean air! This is just the beginning,” Tian, who used to sell coal for a living, she said between rounds.

“I was a polluter before I retired,” he said. “Now that whole company is gone.”

Even French President Emmanuel Macron marvelled at the sky during his state visit in the second week of January, saying: “I have never seen Beijing like this.”

Questions remain, however, on whether the government’s measures are sustainable.

Indeed, China Daily reported that for the third week of January, 31 cities in northern China, including Beijing and Tianjin, were issued an orange alert, the second highest, temporarily disrupting the blue skies that residents have been enjoying for weeks. After that, the air index (as tracked on http://aqicn.org/city/beijing) had returned to a “good level”.

As for Zou, the photographer hopes to soon pass on his daily duties to other observers who will upload sky photos onto an app he is developing.

He began his project in 2013, tired of the choking smog that prevented him from leaving the house and sent his child to hospital several times, and has left his job to work on environmental issues full-time.

“I just have one dream,” he said, “that our country’s skies can always look like this.” – Agencies

In part 2, read how Beijing managed to clean up its skies.